As indicated earlier, some writers contend that Bando's beginnings can be dated to the time of Christ. This view holds that the Bando system promulgated in the U.S. today ("Hanthawaddy Bando") evolved initially as the indigenous fighting system of the Pyus of Northern Burma. Subsequent contact with traveling priests, merchants, and diplomats of the Roman Empire, Ceylon, India, Tibet and China greatly influenced the philosophical and technical evolution of combative systems in Burma.
For example, Roman contacts in the area have been verified by archaeologists as early as 132 A.D. Documented visits from Roman ambassadors occurred in 97 and 121 A.D. These records compliment the grace, elegance and hospitality of the ancient Pyus. Chinese contact (T'ang Dynasty), a visit by Marco Polo and other influences have been corroborated.
The early and advanced development of Burmese civilization is also well-known. The famous pagoda city of Pagan has been referred to as early as 108 A.D., but there is considerable skepticism as to this date. In any event, the splendor of the kingdom remains uncontested.
The Ayegyi warrior-monks (First Burmese Empire 1057-1287 A.D.) added philosophical and religious aspects to the evolving Pyu combative systems. These monks also contributed sophistication in certain physical aspects of the system (while maintaining its combative orientation). Dr. Gyi has begun to teach the Bando Monk System (see discussion later), a remarkable “non-violent martial art”.
The Pyu monks are believed to have been highly skilled in boxing, archery, sword and stick fighting. Some historians speculate that these monk arts may have been influenced by Chinese systems. A recent (twentieth century) change in these systems came with the infusion of the warrior codes of the Gurkhas into Bando, along with emphasis upon use of the famous Gurkha short-sword, the kukri.
The Pyu monks taught various systems at either Ghaza Khunit Kyaung (Seven Schools of Arts) or Kho Kyuang (Nine Schools of Arts). Royal princes, noblemen and military personnel all received formal training in martial arts at these schools. Up to the era of King Thibaw, the last Burmese king (1878-1885 A.D.), warriors who were highly skilled in the martial arts were designated as "Royal Boxers." Their names were recorded on the Royal treasury scrolls. Hence the term "sport of Kings" for Burmese Boxing (or "Letwhay"). Full Members (black belts) of the American Bando Association are entitled to wear the Royal Boxer’s Ring.
When compared with its status as the Sport of Kings, the art of Burmese Boxing today is all but extinct in Burma (now called Myanmar), according to the reports of visitors to Burma in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It is no longer practiced by professional boxers whose time is chiefly devoted to training. Instead, farmers and peasants in rural areas box on festival days, but their lifestyle and economic condition does not allow for full time training. This contrasts dramatically with the situation in Thailand relative to Muay-Thai.
Given the declining state of traditional full-contact boxing in Myanmar today, Bando boxers in the U.S. do their best to carry on the traditions of Royal Boxers. Each November, the ABA stages an annual Kickboxing Tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
The Mongols Invade
The grand civilization of the first Burmese Empire was devastated by Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan in the 13th century; it would take the Burmese some 200 years to restore peace and unity. Despite the clear military superiority of the invading Mongols, the Burmese resisted against all odds.
After suffering ultimate defeat at the hands of the Mongols (including the fall of Pagan), the Burmese continued to harass and attack the conquering Mongols. One is reminded of the resistance in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion of that country. With the assistance of the fierce Shan tribesmen in Northern Burma, the Mongols suffered a particularly punishing guerrilla war across the mountains of Burma.
Rise of Post-Mongol Burma
A Second Burmese Empire was established during the lifetime of the warrior-king Bayinnaung (1551 A.D.). However, after his death, the kingdom disintegrated. It was not until 1758 that a third warrior-king, Alaungpaya, successfully and fully reunified the nation. He was killed at the siege of the Siamese (Thai) capital of Ayuthiya. He had already expelled the French and burned the British trading posts. Alaungpaya's son continued the war, and, in a savage act of revenge, conquered and devastated the Siamese capital in 1767 A.D.
The pagodas, temples, relics and irreplaceable cultural artifacts in the capital were decimated as the rampaging Burmese sacked the capital.
Dr. Gyi points out that to this day, the Burmese people carry the guilt of this cultural atrocity. The virtual demolition of a great cultural and religious center was an act of unrestrained vengeance.
Conquered by the British
After repulsing forces from China, the Burmese then pressed West into India, seizing Assam. There, the Burmese encountered an immovable object directly astride their path of conquest: the British Empire. Three bloody Anglo-Burmese Wars resulted: 1824-26, 1852 and 1878. Losing these wars, Burma became a subjugated Asian Colony of Britain, annexed to India.
With this accomplished, the British set about ruthlessly suppressing indigenous Burmese combative systems, both empty-hand and weapon-oriented. This action was calculated to inhibit rebellion, but it also nearly destroyed the precious cultural artifact of indigenous and highly-developed Burmese combative systems. This process is not unlike the suppression of indigenous martial arts on Okinawa.
Burmese Martial Arts Go "Underground"
Prior to World War II, Burmese combative systems had been generally termed "Thaing," with at least nine major systems, each linked to the primary Burmese racial/ethnic groups: Burmese, Chin, Chinese, Indian, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Shan and Talaing, each with a different manifestation of the art. Nonetheless, these systems had been driven "underground" for nearly a century as World War II approached.
Only a select few were taught the arts in secret by the Masters, so the young could carry on the knowledge of the past. In the land where Bando Boxing had been the "Sport of Kings", it had now become a criminal act. Under Sections 109 and 110 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, imposed by the British, Burmese "Letway" boxers and Thaing/Bando practitioners were classed as "vagrants" and "habitual criminal offenders."
Rescued from Oblivion: The Military Athletic Club
As the clouds of what would become World War II hung over Asia, the British authorities in Burma permitted small scale martial arts training under government sponsorship and rigid controls (in order to prevent the spread of these disciplines into the populace as a whole). This was accomplished through the establishment, in 1933, of the famous "Military Athletic Club."
The Club was first formed by nine Gurkha officers (including Dr. Gyi's father, U Ba Than Gyi). These nine men were determined to restore full vigor to the ancient fighting arts of India, Tibet, Burma, and China. The group also was intent upon integrating some aspects of Japanese arts. As of 1966, information on the Founders of the Military Athletic Club was as follows (ages as of 1966):
- Yogi Abehanada Indian, 76 years old, retired near Darjeeling, India
- C. C. Chu Chinese, 80 years old, returned to mainland China
- A. K. Khan Pakistani, 69 years old, retired in Karachi, East Pakistan
- U Zaw Min Burmese, 70 years old, retired in Tongoo, Burma
- G. Bahadur Gurkha, 79 years old, retired in Darjeeling, India
- Saw Ba U Karen, 66 years old, retired in Insein, Burma
- Dowa Naung Kachin, 71 years old, retired in Mogong, Burma
- Boji Mein Sa Arakanese, 63 years old, retired in Rangoon, Burma
- U Ba Than (Gyi) Burmese, 81 years old, retired in Twante, Burma
Guruji Gonju Bahadur was the first Chairman of the Club. Initially, beyond the Founders, there were some 90 members. In 1936, selected non-military men were allowed to participate due to their high level of martial / combative knowledge and skill. In 1939, total membership was increased to 300.
The training in the Military Athletic Club was extremely stark, rugged, brutal and realistic. From the perspective of today’s legal environment in the United States, such training is inconceivable. For example, it is reported that 15 members collapsed and died during a series of incredibly rigorous training drills. Some 33 members are said to have died of injuries during the group's annually staged private combat bouts.
Lord Mountbatten (then High Commissioner of His Majesty's Imperial and Colonial Forces in Asia) reportedly attended one of these tournaments in 1937. After viewing these life and death contests, he is said to have made his historic remark: "Beautifully brutal art . . . I'm happy they're on our side." General Orde Wingate is said to have called the members of this private military club "Bando Bastards."
During the same time, small sects of thama (ones who use Burmese fighting arts) trained secretly in the Hanthawaddy district and elsewhere. Burmese youth movements of the 1930s also used these combative systems for the purpose of defying the British and to emphasize the nationalistic ideology which was becoming more prominent.
After the successful invasion of Burma by the Japanese, Burmese nationalists were genuinely happy the British had been driven in disarray from Burma. The Japanese encouraged revival of Burmese combative arts. The humiliating British defeat is well described in the literature: Belden, (1944), Slim (1957), and Segrave (1943), are but a few of the popular "I was there" descriptions of those desperate days.
In Burma, a "trust Japan" campaign for gaining the confidence of the populace was instituted throughout Burma. From the perspective of the martial arts, the key organizations were the East Asia Youth League and the Japanese-Burmese Budo Association During this time, some Japanese influence was added to the Burmese arts, particularly from the arts of Aikido and Jiu-Jitsu.
The Japanese Occupation: "Independence"
On January 22, 1943, Premier Tojo of Japan announced that Burma would be given her freedom and independence. This was looked upon by many Burmese citizens as final deliverance from the British occupation and its concomitant oppression of their own culture. Instead, a puppet government was installed by the Japanese.
The new government was determined to establish an unbreakable grip on the populace. Its most horrifying tool was the use of the Japanese Secret Police (KEMPETAI). The KEMPETAI's actions seemed to be deliberately modelled after the Nazi Gestapo. The KEMPETAI shocked not only the Burmese, but many high-level well-educated Japanese military personnel. Thus, initial admiration and support of the Japanese turned into hatred. Burmese troops led by General Aung San eventually joined the Allied cause.
The Japanese staged a major offensive to conquer India, using Burma as a base for the attack. After some of the bloodiest battles in Asia, the Japanese were defeated. (V-J Day remains a holy day for American Bando practitioners.) The Japanese suffered as many as 150,000 dead, wounded and missing.