July 19, 2013

On Martyrs' Day, Burma's Past Meets its Future

Alex Caring-Lobel

Today marks Burma's Martyrs’ Day, a holiday commemorating the anniversary of the assassination of anti-imperialist revolutionary Aung San, father of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and newest member of Burmese parliament Aung San Suu Kyi. Recognized as the architect of Burma’s independence from Britain, the young leader was gunned down in a government building on July 19, 1947 along with six of his cabinet ministers, just six months before his country would achieve independence. In Burma, today is a day of mourning, both of the leader and the principles that would have likely become manifest in Burmese society if his life had not been cut short.

In the pages of Tricycle early this year, Burmese activist and scholar Maung Zarni demonstrated how Aung San’s ideals stood in opposition to the recent wave of Buddhist-led violence that we continue to cover closely:

Marxist-inspired revolutionary nationalists led by the martyred Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) set out to forge a new multiculturalist, secular, and civic nationalism. In 1948, after Aung San was assassinated by a rival Burmese politician… Burma plunged into a long series of armed revolts against the central state. Aung San’s successors gradually abandoned any attempts to secularize Burmese nationalism along the lines of civic nationalism, which would have moved the Burmese away from the premodern provincialist blood- and faith-based view of national identity.

The victims in the assassination of Aung San and his cabinet represent a wide range of Burmese (not just Burmese Buddhists), and include a Shan, a Karen, and a Muslim, U Razak, then Minister of Education and Planning. In addition to being Chairman of the Burma Muslim Congress, U Razak was also a chairman of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom Party—a political party amalgam of the Communist Party of Burma, the Socialist Party, and Aung San’s National Army. Their policy rejected the partitioning of the nation along community or religious lines. Aung San and the principles he and his government advocated thus remain relevant to the most pressing issues the country faces today.

As Burma opens up to the forces of the global market at an accelerating rate, we are reminded of Aung San’s anti-imperialist views that strongly opposed economic exploitation. Before his assassination, he spoke openly against the British and accused them of destabilizing the region in order to protect their interests, a position that many suspect got him killed. The assassination of Aung San led to what Burma’s (or “Myanmar’s”) current president Thein Sein has called “the longest-running set of armed conflicts anywhere in the world.” Many foreign companies, such as China’s state-owned firms, have benefited immensely from the country’s perpetual unrest, and so have the handful of Burmese in and associated with the country’s former military regime. Now that Burma is opening to foreign investment, any multinational that can afford to bid stands to benefit. The problem is that that benefit, at least in the past, has not trickled down.

For example, despite Rakhine (Arakan) State’s plentiful natural resources, the region remains the second poorest in Burma, which is one of the poorest nations in Asia. The government has given the Chinese permission to begin surveying sites for mineral deposits, a move met by resistance from local villagers, whose protests have been suppressed and participators arrested as recently as April. A China-backed petroleum pipeline, slated to begin transporting gas in September, has also elicited grassroots protests.

A combination of the region’s overwhelming poverty, ethnic diversity (the highest concentration of Rohingya in the country, at one point as high as 40%), marginalized Buddhists (Rakhine Buddhists are distinct from the “Burmese Buddhist” majority that rules the nation, and have historically been in conflict with them), as well as adjacency to Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal came together to create a natural “ground zero” for an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence.

But there is hope. Today in Rangoon (Yangon), Burma’s largest city and commercial capital, hundreds took to the streets to mourn the assassination and celebrate the memory of the leader that led the country to independence. Such demonstration was prohibited until the current government (what The Irrawaddy calls the “quasi-civilian government”) came into power in 2011. Martyrs’ Day was declared a holiday following the official independence of the country, and was publicly celebrated until the popular uprising of 1988, at which point the military junta, fearing unrest, barred public gatherings. Now the holiday, and the political spirit that accompanies it, is making a comeback.

On the holiday, in an interview aired earlier, President Thein Sein shocked supporters when he announced that he was not preparing himself to contest the 2015 presidential election, and that he had “no objections” to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, running for office. The former prisoner of conscience will still require a constitutional amendment in order to run for office, as the current law forbids anyone married to a foreigner or who has foreign children from being eligible for office. (Suu Kyi was married to the late British academic Miachael Aris, with whom she had two children, both British.) The challenge of convincing a military-dominant parliament to amend the constitution remains, but if accomplished, Suu Kyi will be the leading candidate for the presidency. On this Martyrs' Day many are hoping, in the “Golden Land” of Buddhism and beyond, that Aung San Suu Kyi will have the opportunity to continue her father’s legacy.

—Alex Caring-Lobel

Image 1: Aung San in military garb
Image 2: Burmese commemorate Martyrs' Day in Mandalay
Image 3: President Thein Sein
Image 4: Aung San Suu Kyi

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