RANGOON—Under the shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda, a steady stream of visitors from all walks of life descends a leafy lane that leads to a colonial style-building.
Were it not for the Bogyoke (General) Aung San Museum, this avenue would have been deserted at 7 am on Thursday as it is for most of the year. But on July 19, young students in school uniform, parents chaperoning their children, monks and nuns walking in lines brought vibrancy to this generally sleepy neighborhood.
“Every July 19 is like this,” said Soe Win, a security officer who has worked the occasion for two decades. “People flock here before the museum opening time, and we still have visitors until it is closed at four in the evening,” he told The Irrawaddy.
“They come here, especially on that day, in remembrance of Bogyoke,” he added.
For Burmese people, Aung San, the father of the dissident-turned-Parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi, and July 19 are inseparable. The national hero who won independence from the British after colonial rule was gunned down by a political rival in 1947 along with eight comrades.
Afterwards the Burmese government made the occasion Martyrs’ Day—a national occasion of mourning for the deceased leaders when thousands make a beeline to Aung San’s mausoleum in Rangoon to pay their respects. A visit to his former home, now converted into a museum, is also part of the 65-year-old tradition.
“As soon as I set foot in the museum, a sense of sorrow overwhelms me,” said Bo Hnin, a second year geography student. “His life-long effort earned our country independence. What a shame to lose such a leader,” added the 18-year-old native of Natmauk—same birth place as Aung San in Upper Burma.
While Bo Hnin was sharing his feelings, an official ceremony to pay tribute to the late leaders got underway at the nearby mausoleum.
The state-run The New Light of Myanmar reported that the celebration was attended by the Burmese Vice-President Dr. Sai Mauk Kham and other senior officials, as well as family members of the deceased leaders including Suu Kyi.
“What a surprise to see the vice-president laying a wreath at the mausoleum. I don’t remember the last time the ceremony was joined by a high ranking official,” wondered retired government officer Myint Maung, who watched a live broadcast of the ceremony.
Since 2008, Rangoon’s City Development Council has taken care of the Martyrs’ Day ceremony, and until last year the mayor was the most senior person to attend.
After the 1988 popular uprising, the then-military junta downgraded the ceremony. The mausoleum became off-limits to ordinary people as the men in uniform thought a public gathering at the burial site would spark national unrest.
The state flag flying at half-mast on July 19 became the only visible commemoration. People born after 1988 have never heard the mournful siren wailing at 10:37 am to mark the exact time the leaders were assassinated.
But since reformist President Thein Sein took office last year, the decades-long Martyrs’ Day tradition seems to have been resurrected to some extent. His quasi-civilian government started to allow public tributes—albeit with severe restrictions—at the mausoleum in 2011.
People were required to undergo a thorough police search before entering the premises. No cell phones were allowed; a camera was out of question; even a backpack was considered as a threat to security. Columns of riot police with assault rifles were in position behind the barricades.
Contrary to last year, security measures at the checkpoint to the burial site on Thursday seemed more relaxed. Only two police with M16 rifles were visible, while officers at the entrance seemed friendlier than previously.
The security chief sat leisurely on a roadside chair enjoying his cigarette. A thorough search of the personal belongings of everyone who wanted to go inside was still conducted, and the ban on mobile phones and cameras remained in place.
At 10:30 am, the public address system at the National League for Democracy headquarters, several meters away from the checkpoint, crackled into life, giving hundreds of people lining up on both sides of the road in front of the office a jolt.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please take position to give respect to our late leaders,” said the announcer.
Seven minutes later, when the siren blared out, everyone bowed down for one minute in the direction of the burial site. Even passing vehicles honked their horns to mark the mournful moment.
Then one minute’s silence followed. Some faint sobs burst out among mourners. An elderly woman wiped away her tears. A middle-aged NLD supporter wearing a Suu Kyi headband let tears trickle down on her cheeks with lips quivering.
In her commemorative speech on the day, Suu Kyi said everyone can be a martyr but a martyr is not just someone who sacrifices his life for his beliefs. “Someone who gives up their life for the sake of other people is a real martyr,” said the 67-year old opposition leader.
Minutes after her speech, the dark clouds started to roll in. “The martyr rain is coming,” said an old man near the security checkpoint. “It was also raining 65 years ago on the day.”
Despite the hammering downpour, the road to the mausoleum remained crammed with people heading to the burial site. Students lined up at the checkpoint while political activists flocked by holding their party banners. Two Buddhist monks with umbrellas waited patiently in line for their turn to get searched.
“It doesn’t matter if it is raining or not. It’s worthwhile getting saturated from head to toe to pay respect to our leaders who sacrificed their lives for the country,” said Hla Min who experienced a punishing bus ride from his home in Hlaing Thaya Township, an industrial neighborhood near the city limits, to reach the mausoleum.
Latecomers at the memorial site included the 88 Generation Students who were joined by some Burmese pop stars and musicians near the checkpoint. The security personnel let them pass without any hesitation, as well as a group of reporters who spent most of their time lingering around the gate.
Soon after arriving at the square in front of the looming red monument, the student leaders and celebrities become the center of attention. Nearly everyone rushed to catch a glimpse of them while cameras on smuggled cell phones flashed.
They then bowed in respect of the late leaders and laid a wreath.
Jimmy, aka Kyaw Min Yu, one of the 88 Generation Student leaders, told The Irrawaddy that they had not faced any harassment from the government during their march to the memorial site.
“This is the very first time for us since 1988 that we can pay tribute personally to the leaders at their burial site,” he explained.
He went on to express disappointment that the ceremony was banned in other parts of the country on the excuse that there were no monuments for the deceased leaders in those areas.
“So we need to have memorial sites for our leaders all over the country,” said the former political prisoner before leaving the site.
One of the music stars, Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein, said she had mixed feelings about attending.
“I feel sad,” she said. “But I feel excited too. I’m sorry for the loss of our leaders. I was very eager to be here. Today I made it. I am grateful that it could happen. Now I can say that I have paid respect to our late national leaders before I die.”