Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Bogyoke’s conflicted hold over Burma

Wednesday, 17 August 2011 20:05 Joseph Ball

(Commentary) – Stuck in a taxi for seemingly hours in one of Rangoon’s increasingly frequent traffic jams, I was approached by a young, barefoot boy in a torn T-shirt. Through an open window, he stretched his arm, dangling key chains in front of my face and reciting the mantra, “Bogyoke, Bogyoke, Bogyoke.” The key chains depicted the young nationalist leader of modern Burma, Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 only months before independence was achieved. His is a face, an idea and a myth that hovers over contemporary Burmese politics, providing at once both a unifying axis and an embattled legacy.

A picture of General Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi, at her public speech in Rangoon the day following her release from house arrest in November 2010. Photo: Mizzima

Throughout much of Burma the Bogyoke is regarded as a certain talisman. His daughter’s National League for Democracy party and splinter organizations are quick to unfurl the image of Aung San at any opportunity. On a long-distance bus in Mon State as well, the video screensaver provided passengers with the black-and-white, serious face of the general. His statue stands in towns across the country. “The people,” wrote Dr. Maung Maung in the 1960s of Aung San, “looking for a leader in the crucial phase of the country’s history, had found him.”

In several ethnic corners too, Aung San is revered as the signatory to the Panglong Agreement, that fading parchment in which so much faith was and is stored. Ominously, however, while multiple representatives of various ethnic communities signed the document, there was but a single signature attached to it in the name of the Burmese government.

A Rangoon taxi driver displays his reverence for the fallen
hero who was assassinated by rival political forces.
Photo: Mizzima
Aung San’s overriding concern was independence for Burma. It was a drive whose final chapter was led at relative breakneck speed, with independence eventually arriving in early 1948, almost a full decade ahead of Malaysia. However, his dream was also of a unified leftist state. And within mere months after independence that dream was shattered.

Aung San himself seems to have some degree recognized the dangerous precipice upon which the country was traveling. “I shall lead until independence is achieved,” historian U Aung Than quotes the general. “If there is no leftist unity, there will be no point in carrying on. I shall quit office after independence, sit back and watch the scramble for power.”

Would Burmese history have proven any different if Aung San had lived? The cult of the Bogyoke certainly believes so. But, realistically, would the Karen National Defense Organisation not have marched on Rangoon, breaching Insein and coming within a whisker of overthrowing the government? Would the Communists not have proved a political and military force in opposition to the government for decades? And possibly of greatest concern, would the Tatmadaw have proved any less of an overt political actor, with its antecedents of political soldiers and armed political bodies such as the People’s Volunteer Organisation?

None of this is to detract from the significance and merit in the work of Burma’s assassinated independence hero. But, there is a need to appreciate the historical figure and the idylls for which he fought while acknowledging the perils inherent in independence for which answers were lacking at the time of independence and for which answers continue to be found wanting.

Security officials and visitors at the General Aung San Museum on Natmauk Road in Bahan Township in Rangoon on Tuesday, July 19, the 64th anniversary of Martyrs’ Day. Visitors this year numbered ten times the number last year. Photo: Mizzima

In her recent trip to Pegu, Aung San Suu Kyi––inaugurating the Aung San Jarmon Library––appealed for national unity. Her father also appealed for unity. But, what does unity look like? The answers do not lie in the past. As Burmese again search for a political leader in a time of crisis, those vying to pick up the pieces of Aung San’s legacy need to develop strategies to address the issues left unresolved at the moment of modern Burma’s troubled birth.

Yet, whoever emerges to bear the weight of the Bogyoke’s unfinished work, it is a weight impossible to bear alone. Accommodation between the Tatmadaw and Burma’s civilian opposition parties, each with their own strong, genuine ties to the legacy of Aung San, is imminent.

A thousand or more miles away, in a precisely managed, dark air-conditioned vault in Hanoi, helmeted soldiers with bayonets at the ready stand outlined against an illuminated, transparent case. After standing in line for hours, only precious seconds are allotted each visitor to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where Uncle Ho lies in state, eponymous sandals at his feet.

July 19 in Burma is Martyrs’ Day, commemorating the death of Aung San and comrades. In Rangoon especially, it has become a day of increased tension and heightened security, with the government attempting to balance the state’s recognition of the martyrs while prohibiting the possibility that Aung San can serve as a focal point for any mass uprising––a drive toward Burma’s second independence, in the words of Aung San’s daughter.

This year, however, the 64th anniversary of the carnage that stunned the country, a slight but noticeable thaw was in the air. Following Aung San Suu Kyi’s acceptance of an invitation to attend a government ceremony at Martyrs’ Mausoleum, security personnel organized a tightly controlled procession for the public wishing to pay its respects.

Instead of a frigid vault in Hanoi with a see-through case, the visitor in Rangoon is greeted with the Burmese sun and a smallish casket behind an iron gate. But, there are similarities as well, the penetrating silence only interrupted by sharp military posturing and the periodic call to honour those fallen; guests given but a fleeting minute to pay their respects.

The last installment of the Vietnam War concluded in 1975. Ho died in 1969, unable to witness the goal he had dedicated himself to. Today, though, while buses of school children are escorted through the Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square, feeding the ongoing legacy, Vietnam has in many respects moved on. The transformation of the country can even be felt in Burma, where the presence of Vietnamese businessmen and money is visibly on the rise.

Burma must also find a means to push forward, respectful of the contributions and legacy of its independence hero, but free of an anchor to associated divisiveness––the Bogyoke’s final resting place a valued link to the past while the state wrestles with a common future.

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