For the first time in a generation, Burma today officially commemorated Martyrs’ Day—the occasion marked all the more important by state TV coverage of a poignant ceremony at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon where Aung San Suu Kyi laid flowers at her father’s tomb.
This ceremony and the others like it across the country indicate true signs of change.
With flags flying at half-staff, Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham joined Suu Kyi as she laid three baskets of flowers in front of her father’s tomb. He laid a wreath of white orchids and saluted the slain leader as a solemn two-minute silence was observed.
Sixty-five years ago, a group of armed men loyal to U Saw, Aung San’s political rival, surreptitiously entered the Secretariat Building in central Rangoon, burst through the door into the chamber where Aung San and his cabinet ministers were having a meeting, and sprayed the room with bullets. The nation lost nine martyrs, including the architect of its independence, General “Bogyoke” Aung San.
Some years before, as a student at Rangoon University, the young Aung San was considered somewhat eccentric, often abrupt and desperately anti-social. He nevertheless rose to prominence as a student activist, was a leader within the Thakin (“we master”) movement, and soonafter a fugitive revolutionary wanted by the British colonial authorities.
He sought foreign assistance to end British occupation, and founded the modern Burmese army. His stint in the armed forces was neither long-term nor distinguished; rather he gained popularity as politician and eventually sat down with the British, at home and in London, to negotiate his country’s independence. By his early 30s, he was a statesman who was able and ready to lead the nation once the transition to independence was completed.
That tragic day in 1947 robbed Burma of its moment of glory, and radically altered the country’s destiny. Burma subsequently plunged into civil war, and never again saw such a trusted and able political leader at its helm.
Under successive military governments, Aung San was relegated in status, especially after his daughter, Suu Kyi, returned in 1988 to pick up the torch on his behalf, to continue the struggle toward an independence that was still not tangible.
The military junta acted in self-interest to suppress Aung San’s legacy; its conduct in doing so was undignified and ugly.
Martyrs’ Day ceased to exist. Aung San’s memory was reduced to small and limited gatherings, and the picture of Aung San was removed from Burmese currency as if he had never existed.
In fact, Aung San had never died. Many people still say he lives in the hearts of millions of Burmese. He sacrificed his life for Burmese independence, and his ability to articulate the country’s future and his dreams of fortifying its armed forces were evident in his forthright speeches. Though he was young, he was a visionary who won the trust of people of all ethnicities, and was destined to be the one to lead the new nation.
On a day like today, we cannot help but wonder what would have happened if not for those tragic murders. When we look at what resulted in the coming years and decades—military brutality, misrule, mismanagement, corruption and incompetence—it is easy to second guess that Burma’s future would have been much brighter.
Sadly, the main protagonist of Burma’s downfall was Ne Win, a former colleague of Aung San, who led the country through a dark age for 26 years.Following Ne Win’s reign was a 24-year misrule under his subordinates.
But what the military regime never fully realized was that Aung San was always there in the background, his selfless reputation making a mockery of the generals’ petty jealousies and greed.
No sooner had people felt the first drops of this Burmese Spring, when suddenly old black and white photographs of the Bogyoke began appearing everywhere. Aung San T-shirts were suddenly a big hit with youths, while local movie-makers clamored to stake a claim in producing a comprehensive biopic.
His daughter, an elected MP who spent 15 years under house arrest, has now reached an understanding with the ruling authorities. She was recently allowed to travel abroad for the first time—and return. During her overseas trip, she said that she was ready to lead the nation if her party wins the elections in 2015.
Like Suu Kyi, we are “cautiously optimistic” as the country wades through this transition.
Suu Kyi and her colleagues face an uphill battle. This time, however, the adversary is not foreign colonialism but a home-grown dictatorship which has reduced the resource-rich nation to the ranks of one of the world’s poorest states.
The question now is: can she beat the odds and succeed as her father did, or will her highly principled approach, which contrasts so starkly with Aung San’s pragmatism, doom her struggle to failure?
Either way, we can be sure that the spirit of Aung San continues to watch over his unfinished struggle.