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Remembering the martyrs and their hopes for Burma

Today Burma observes the 66th anniversary of the death of Aung San and his nationalist colleagues. It was also on this day all those years ago that Aung San’s ‘Big Tent’ vision for the country, where ethnic equality and self-determination were to be the bedrock of the Union of Burma, was buried.

Aung San was a rare bird from a deeply traditional country under colonial control. He was a secularist, anti-feudal radical thinker and leader, who despised sycophants of all stripes and colours. The general did not bog himself down with questions concerning which races belonged in Burma and which didn’t.

He defined tai-yin-thar (ethnic nationalities) as anyone who was born on Burmese soil and loved his or her birthplace. He would certainly be turning in his grave at this juncture in Burma’s history.

In the weeks leading up to his assassination, Aung San was stridently opposed to British economic exploitation and accused the colonial authorities of attempting to destabilise Burma as the country edged closer to independence.  He called the British post-WWII policies towards the country “fascist” and derided their colonial mindset and worldview.

According to the Nation editor and publisher the late Edward Law-Yone, who met the last colonial governor Hubert Rance, London was thinking of putting U Saw – their local proxy and mastermind behind Aung San’s murder — in charge of forming a government immediately after the general’s death on 19 July 1947.

The late Brigadier General Kyaw Zaw, who was one of the members of the famed 30 comrades that made up the nucleus of the Burma Independence Army, was unequivocal when he wrote in his autobiography that the colonial crime investigation department (CID) in Rangoon knew days in advance about U Saw’s plot to take out Aung San.

And Aung San was also supposedly aware that the conspiracy was being hatched and told his aide-de-camp Captain Tun Hla that it would be U Saw pulling the strings.

According to filmmaker Rob Lemkin, who made the documentary “Who killed Aung San?”, the British government removed or otherwise destroyed official and potentially incriminatory dispatches sent from Rangoon back to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London following the assassination.

Lemkin’s film also claimed that a key staff member from the British Council was the main liaison with U Saw. A few months prior to the assassination, news broke that about 200 British-made automatic sub-machine guns disappeared or were stolen from a colonial arms depot. The officer in charge of the depot slipped out of the country in no time, and with no troubles, assisted by the last colonial government to rule the country.

U Nu was eventually handpicked by the British to lead Burma’s new cabinet, and Nu did everything in his power to quell popular public opinion by burying the truth behind Aung San’s assassination.

On his part, Nu, now head of the almost independent government provided the British government with major economic concessions and welcomed the country’s military advisers to train the Burmese army. The communists bitterly opposed Nu’s terms of independence, which saw the Burmese pay full compensation to all the British commercial firms including the Burmah Oil Corporation (BOC), mining companies, etc.

[pullquote] “The former colonial rulers are heading back to their old stomping ground to exploit the country again!” [/pullquote]

When the communists rejected the deal as a sham and went underground within 90-days of independence, the British came to Nu’s aid. They trained Burmese military leaders in ruthless counterinsurgency methods – including the infamous “Four Cuts” strategy. The British also sold the military hardware to General Ne Win and his army that they needed to fight the communists.

Now history is repeating itself.

Back in 1880’s the Kingdom of Burmah was known “one of the world’s unexplored markets”.  A century and half on, the country is again considered to be one of the very few remaining ‘frontier markets’.

The British banks sucked Burma dry leading up to the Japanese-Burma Independence Army “invasion” in Dec 1942, while externalising the financial side of the operations to South Indians, known as Chettyers, who became the scapegoats for all the ills of colonial Burma.

Now, the former colonial rulers are heading back to their old stomping ground to exploit the country again!

This time our ruling and opposition elites are facilitating the process. Oxbridge-trained financiers, Royal Military Academies-trained advisers and representatives from Britain’s arms industry, which sold  £12 billion worth of weapons to repressive regimes around the world last year, are all about to rush in to penetrate the world’s latest frontier market.

While the country is about to be re-exploited by British interests, Burma’s people have yet to overcome the country’s colonial legacy. Burma was carved up under British rule. Ethnic groups were played off of each other as the British sought to divide and rule their colonial estate.

Aung San realised that for Burma to succeed, the country would to have embrace a secularist-multiculturalist society after independence.  This day 66 years ago Aung San and some of his closest multi-ethnic advisors – a Shan, a Karen, a Myanmar Muslim, a devout Bama Buddhist and a liberal socialists were murdered while meeting in the Secretariat in Rangoon.  “Made in England” weapons killed not only Burma’s nationalist visionaries but also their dream of a multiculturalist, secular Burma.

Pro-Aung San Burmese campaigners trying to revive the annual call to pay homage to the fallen martyrs through the state broadcast of sirens at 10:37 am should go beyond these simple demands.

For the country to be peaceful, prosperous and democratic, Burma’s leaders and citizens must urgently embrace, and actively put into practice, the martyrs’ ‘Big Tent” vision of a multicultural state for all – irrespective of ethnicity, faith, and ideologies.

Only then will the fallen martyrs be able to say: Sadu/Thadu! Sadu/Thadu! Sadu/Thadu (A good deed has been done!)

Maung Zarni is an associate fellow at the University of Malaya where he is also the editor of the Journal of Democracy and Elections and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. 

-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.


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