These days, nearly everyone has heard of Aung San Suu Kyi – Nobel Peace Prize recipient, de facto leader of newly (semi-)democratic Burma, and formerly the world’s most famous political prisoner. Back in August 2015, we wrote about “The Lady” and her work here on the blog. But what do you know about her father, Aung San? In this post, I’ll investigate the life and times of Burma’s much-loved liberator – the feted “Father of modern Burma”.
Aung San was born Htein Lin in Natmauk, central Burma, to a lawyer father and his wife Daw Suu, in 1915. Like his daughter after him, he was born into a family of political agitators: his great uncle, Bo Min Yang, resisted the annexation of Burma by the British in 1886, and for most of his life Aung San was staunchly anti-British and anti-imperialist.
Almost as soon as he entered university in Yangon (then Rangoon) in 1933, Aung San became a student leader and befriended U Nu – the future first prime minister of Burma – rising to become president of both the Rangoon University Student Union and the All Burma University Student Union. Even in their student days, Aung San and U Nu were controversial, risking explusion by propagating articles criticising university officials and triggering student strikes.
In 1938, at the age of 23, Aung San dropped his university classes (he had been studying law, the same as his father) to enter politics full-time. Taking the title “Thakin” (“Lord” or “Master” – a title that symbolically reclaimed sovereignty over Burma from the British), he spent his early political career organising country-wide strikes and supporting nationalist organisations in their campaign for independence – encouraging alliances between different factions and becoming General Secretary of the Poor Man’s Party.
In 1939, Aung San co-founded the Communist Party of Burma – then soon afterwards the People’s Revolutionary Party (later renamed the Socialist Party). But it was not long before the Burmese government caught wind of plans to revolt against the British, and issued a warrant for his arrest, forcing Aung San to flee to China to seek aid. On the way, he was intercepted by the Japanese, and in an event that would shape the course of Burma’s future he allowed himself to be persuaded to go to Japan instead – leading to an alliance with the Japanese in 1941.
The Japanese offered Aung San arms, training and military support in order to overthrow the British – against whom they were fighting alongside Nazi Germany – and so it was that Burma found itself embroiled in World War II: not through its alignment with Japanese aims but as a means to secure its own autonomy.
Aung San and his revolutionaries formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in Bangkok, Thailand, and were aligned with Japan as it conquered Rangoon in March 1942. The BIA and the Japanese shared control of the capital, and in August 1943 the Japanese declared Burma an independent nation and set up a puppet government led by Ba Maw – with Aung San as its War Minister. At this point, he was just 28 years old.
But if Aung San thought that this would bring an end to Burma’s troubles, he was mistaken. It soon became apparent that the Japanese did not intend to grant full independence to Burma, and that in allying themselves with Japan the Burmese had simply swapped one imperial overlord for another. During their three-year occupation of Burma, as many as a quarter of a million Burmese civilians died – many of them in the construction of the so-called “Death Railway”. As a former comrade of Aung San’s commented to William Slim, acting Lieutenant-General of Britain’s Burmese forces: “If the British sucked our blood, the Japanese ground our bones”.
Disillusioned with the Japanese and unconvinced of their ability to win the war, Aung San went to his former enemies, the British, to broker a deal. As a result of these talks, in collaboration with British authorities in India and Burmese Communist leaders, Aung San finally led a successful revolt against the occupying Japanese on 27th March 1945 – an event now commemorated as Tatmadaw Day, or “Armed Forces Day”. Following their victory, a military government was established under British command, incorporating Aung San’s former BIA (now called the Burma National Army, or BNA) and Burmese Socialists and Communists to form the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). Though offered a position in this military regime, Aung San declined it in favour of becoming a civilian political leader.
All seemed to be well – or at least improving – on the Burmese political stage. With the Japanese gone and former adversaries united in government, the British were even warming to the idea of Burmese independence, despite former hostility and Winston Churchill’s professed antipathy for the “rebel” Aung San. The military government was dissolved and superseded by a civilian administration, and Aung San rose to become its de facto Prime Minister. In January 1947, Clement Attlee met with Aung San in London and signed an agreement guaranteeing Burmese independence from Britain within a year. Aung San’s lifelong wish to free Burma from imperialism seemed at last to have been within reach.
Though Britain did cede independence to Burma on 4th January 1948, Aung San never lived to see it. On 19th July 1947, just months after his agreement with Attlee, Aung San was assassinated by a gang of paramilitaries, who broke into Rangoon’s Secretariat Building during a meeting and shot him and six of his cabinet ministers, along with a secretary and a bodyguard. The assassins were under the command of former Prime Minister U Saw, who had long had political differences with Aung San, and was tried and hanged for his crime.
In Burma today, Aung San is revered as a national hero and considered the father of modern Burma. Many still believe that had he lived, the diverse political groups and ethnic minorities of Burma might have been united peacefully under his leadership, rather than the ongoing factional strife and brutal military dictatorship that followed instead. His memory secured his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi’s place in the hearts of the Burmese people, and despite (or perhaps because of) the military regime’s efforts to eradicate his name from Burma – removing his likeness from coins and tearing down statues – his image became a rallying point for pro-democracy campaigners. Today, you’ll see Aung San’s legacy in the names of streets and buildings across the country, including Bogyoke (General) Market and Bogyoke Aung San Road in Yangon.