Burma (Myanmar) commemorated Martyrs’ Day on Sunday, which many see as one of the saddest moments in the country’s contemporary history: on July 19, 1947, General Aung San and seven other members of the then-interim government – Abdul Razak, Ba Cho, Ba Win, Mahn Ba Khaing, Ohn Maung, Sao San Tun and Thakin Mya – were assassinated.
The General and his companions met their end at the hands of a group of armed men led by U Saw, Aung San’s political rival, who burst into the Secretariat, a large colonial building in downtown Yangon, and used Sten guns to wipe out a significant part of the Burmese leadership.
The details of the murders remain murky. According to historian Thant Myint-U, some British officers lent a hand to the assassins, but did so of their own volition, without receiving orders from London.
“To this day conspiracy theories abound [..] but it seems certain that these British officers acted on their own; Aung San was increasingly seen by London as an asset against a Communist takeover,” he wrote in his recent book on Burmese history, ‘The River of Lost Footsteps.’
Even today most people are convinced that the General’s death changed the history of the country, and not for the better. Had he survived, some reason, his colleague Ne Win would not have staged a coup d’état in 1962 and military rule would not have cloaked Burma for decades. Potentially, ethnic conflicts might have been easier to solve, for just months before being shot dead Aung San had endorsed a federal Constitution which granted autonomy to the country’s minorities – precisely what ethnic groups are demanding today.
“People in Myanmar are still sad for what happened,” said Aw Shan Hka, a student from Yangon’s Technological University, as he and his friends strolled in the courtyards of the Secretariat, which was open to the public to mark this year’s celebrations. “I think Myanmar would be like Europe if he had not died. We would have democracy now.”
The memory of Aung San is particularly dear to the National League for Democracy (NLD), whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is his daughter.
This was plain to see on Sunday, when Suu Kyi held a speech at her party’s headquarters in Yangon. A massive crowd of supporters gathered, cheering and clapping hands as portraits of Aung San peered at the celebrations from large posters.
The relationship between Suu Kyi and her father has given a political edge to the NLD, which capitalizes on the contrast between the memory of Aung San – seen as an uncorrupt, honest leader – and the experiences the people have had under successive military rulers.
“We are very sad because we remember our leader,” one student told Asian Correspondent. “Today the government is not so good and we remember him.”
According to Dr. Felix Girke, a research fellow in anthropology at the University of Konstanz who studies the perception of Aung San in modern Burma, the defunct General has come to represent “freedom, independence, courage, integrity.” “He is the person who fought two colonial armies and integrated the ethnic minorities,” he told Asian Correspondent.
Dr. Girke cautioned, however, that many of the complexities of Aung San have been forgotten. “In some ways he has become an empty symbol. The fact that he was a socialist, for instance, is not something people talk about these days,” he contended.
Somewhat paradoxically, Aung San is also considered the father of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese Army, on the grounds that he organized a resistance force against the British and the Japanese. As such, he is an icon for both the military and those who oppose military rule; for Suu Kyi and, at least formally, for the leadership that put her under house arrest.
However, according to some the links between the founder of the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), as Aung San’s organization was called, and the modern Tatmadaw may be more tenuous than they look, and should not be taken for granted.
In an article published in the Irrawaddy, Bertil Lintner, a journalist and expert of Burmese affairs, deconstructed the idea that today’s military is directly linked to the anti-colonial resistance force. He concluded that “Bogyoke Aung San’s army disintegrated after the Second World War. And the new Tatmadaw that emerged after independence, and, especially, after the 1962 coup d’état, is an entirely different entity.”
Furthermore, decades of military rule have had an impact on the perception that people have of the Army. “I think once people might have felt that Aung San was the father of the armed forces,” said Dr. Girke. “But Aung San himself would probably be very disappointed at how it has developed and how the army serves as a tool for many people to enrich themselves.”