This is the complete text of the special lecture delivered by Angelene Naw to mark the 75th independence anniversary of Myanmar, delivered online on 26 January 2023. Professor Michael Charney was Discussant, and the event was chaired by Dr Nilanjan Sarkar. A video-recording of the event is available here. (Hyperlinks in the body text have been added for the benefit of readers of this blog.)
According to 2022 reports, English is the most spoken language in the world today. We cannot deny that English become the common language of the world because of imperialism.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, Burma was a portion of 84 per cent of the earth’s surface controlled by imperial powers. The British conquered Burma in stages, and after dethroning the king (King Thibaw Min) and sending him and his family into exile in India, they created the province of Burma in British India in 1886, with it becoming a major province in 1897. In Burma, as elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia, religion lent inspiration to the nationalist movement. Buddhism was one of the fundamental components of Burmese national identity. The dethroning of the king, who the people revered as the chief promoter of the Faith, meant for the Burmese people that the British were trying to destroy Buddhism in Burmese society. Unsurprisingly then, most of the leaders of the earlier anti-colonial movement were the Buddhist monks.
By the end of the 19th century, other factors gave stimulus to Burma’s nationalist movement — the defeat of the Russians by the Japanese in 1904–5, the growth of the Indian National Congress (INC) party across the border, and Marxist ideology. With the intention of stimulating nationalist sentiment, Western-educated Burmese élites encouraged the study of Burmese history and Indian nationalist movements.
Through their initiative, in 1906, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), modeled on the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), was formed. Within a decade, by 1916, YMBA — which initially engaged only in social, religious and cultural matters — thrust itself into politics. In 1920, the leaders merged YMBA with various patriotic organisations, and named the new organisation the General Council of Burmese Association (GCBA). They demanded the new administrative reforms granted to India in 1919 be applied to Burma as well; as a result, in 1923, the British extended the Montague-Chelmsford (dyarchy) Reforms and handed over certain limited functions of government to the Burmese people, making Burma a ‘Governor Province’.
The British parliament had established the dyarchy system of government in both India and Burma as a constitutional experiment for a period of ten years only; in 1931, they appointed the Simon Commission to enact further reforms. Along with these new reforms came the plan for the separation of Burma from India. Some GCBA leaders supported the continued attachment to India, based on the fact that the Indian National Congress seemed to be rapidly approaching Home Rule; but others decided to campaign for a separatist policy.
The 1930s proved a disastrous decade for established political leaders in Burma. By 1936, almost all the nationalist politicians had taken offices in the Burmese Legislative Council, which many followers considered an organisation co-opted by the British. Seeing it as a betrayal by the politicians, the country lost faith in their political leaders. In 1937, the British government separated Burma from India and granted her its own Constitution, independent of India. However, the senior politicians’ mishandling of the issue of separation from India created a vacuum in the leadership of the Burmese national movement – and it was into this vacuum that new young patriots like Aung San stepped in.
Where and when did Aung San find his inspiration to nationalist movement? Why has Aung San become one of the most important political figures in the history of Burma’s struggle for independence? My talk today will touch upon only some of the reasons — and we can talk about some others if they come up in the discussion or questions.
Born to a family descended of a Burmese patriot beheaded by the British, as a child Aung San’s dream was to rebel against the British and grew up a committed nationalist leader, obsessed with a single goal: the independence of Burma.
As a member of the student’s union in high school, he often gave speeches at union meetings; in one of them, he surprised his fellow students by saying that they should be concerned with the welfare of their country and search for ways to free the country from British bondage. Captivated by the political affairs of his country, even as a teenager, Aung San attended and studied the speeches delivered by political personalities. After listening to an address by the politician U Soe Thein (of the GCBA), he would later reproduce the speech, imitating the orator’s gestures and repeating many of U Soe Thein’s own words.
He had strong views on controversial matters, and did not shy from airing them: in 1932, as a freshman at Rangoon University, Aung San argued for the non-involvement of Buddhist monks in politics at a debate. Aung San’s room-mate in Pegu Hall had seen him go into the bushes and talk for hours. When asked, he said he was practicing giving speeches to the bushes just as the British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke did to water.
In spite of his all-out efforts, Aung San’s ascension to students’ leadership had to wait until he became the editor of Oway (‘Peacock’s Call’), the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU) magazine in 1935. It was also the time when the Dobama Asi-Ayon (‘We, Burma Association’/DAA) or Thakin (‘Master’) Organisation (founded by Thakin Ba Thaung and Thakin Lay Maung in 1931) became popular throughout Burma. These leaders formed the All-Burma Youth League, where Aung San’s friend U Nu, and many students at Rangoon University, joined them.
An incident involving Aung San led to the 1936 students’ strike. Aung San’s friend U Nu, who was the president of Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU), delivered a speech on 31 January 1936, accusing a member of the university staff of immorality, and Nu received an expulsion letter from Chancellor J.D. Sloss on 21 February. Shortly after that, Aung San was also expelled because he refused to give the name of the author of an article titled ‘Hell Hound at Large’ (published in Oway) attacking a university official. The expulsion of Aung San and Nu triggered the strike of 1936; Richard Butwell, author of U Nu of Burma, writes that, ‘Aung San’s expulsion caused greater indignation among the students than Nu’s.’
Prior to the strike Aung San was hardly known beyond Rangoon University campus.
With the name ‘Aung San’ repeatedly appearing in daily newspapers during the university strike, he gained a public profile as a future leader. After graduating, Aung San formed the All Burma Students Union (ABSU), and in 1938, became the president of both RUSU and ABSU. In addition, the government appointed him as a student representative on the Rangoon University Act Amendment Committee.
Undoubtedly, the events surrounding the student strike of 1936 propelled Aung San into a prominent position as a student leader of the country. Surendra Prasad Singh and some other historians regard 1938 as a turning point in Burma’s Independence movement. It was the year that British administration was threatened by the so-called ‘Revolution of 1300’ (dated after the Burmese Kawza Thekkarit calendar), led by the DAA, where Aung San became a leader.
Although the common goal of the DAA was the freedom of Burma, its leaders were divided into factions. In search for a place in national politics, in October 1938, Aung San decided to join the DAA faction led by Thakin Kodaw Hmaing and Thakin Theim Maung, saying that it was ‘the only militant and intensively nationalistic political party’ at that time.
By the end of 1938, the anti-British Thakin movement was very active. With the formation of a mass base of workers, peasants, students and even monks, DAA played a crucial role in the ‘Revolution of 1300’ between August 1938 and July 1939. This so-called ‘Revolution of 1300’ would become the most important rebellion in the history of the Burmese nationalist movement; Prime Minister Dr Ba Maw was forced to resign on 12 February 1939, and a new ministry under U Pu was formed.
Aung San’s role in the nationalist movement became more substantial when he could persuade other Burmese political parties to join him in forming the Freedom Bloc Party in 1939. He was elected the Party’s General Secretary, and when he drafted the rules, he claimed that ‘Britain’s war (in Europe) was Burma’s opportunity’ and that the time had come to fight British Imperialism.
But his anti-British speeches were not limited to the Burmese people only; in 1940, he made an important appearance across the border when he attended the 53rd session of the India National Congress in Ramgarh (India) as the DAA delegation leader. Aung San met Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, and other Indian National Congress (INC) leaders. After the conference, he and his group (including Than Tun, Ba Hein, Tin Maung, Khin Maung and Singh Gupta) toured many Indian cities, telling the Indian people about the DAA. At Banaras Hindu University, he told his audience that he came to India to meet the Indian leaders and cooperate with the Indian people in fighting against the British.
On 2 April 1940, Aung San told the people of Lahore that to gain independence, it would probably be necessary to sacrifice flesh and blood. Aung San also drafted the manifesto that DAA presented to the conference in India, a very important document in the history of the Burmese nationalist movement, serving as a charter of Burmese demands for independence of Burma. It declared:
We stand for complete independence for Burma, including the areas excluded under the 1935 Government of Burma Act, from the present imperialist domination and exploitation, and for the introduction of a free independent people’s democratic Republic.
It also included the ‘foreign policy’ which stated:
We stand for friendly and business-like relations with any foreign nation, especially with those in our neighbourhood and the Far East, in all possible matters.
On returning from India, Aung San went immediately to the 5th annual meeting of the DAA and presented the manifesto.
When World War II started in Europe, the Burmese nationalist movement launched a vigorous nationwide campaign proclaiming that the difficulties of the British could be an opportunity for the Burmese nation. Under the umbrella of the Freedom Bloc, thakins from the DAA and other political leaders joined with the students, peasants, and workers organisations to demand independence and to demonstrate against the war.
As early as 18 November 1939, a branch of the DAA organised the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP), advocating the use of any available means in the struggle against Britain. Thakin Aung San was selected as Foreign Liaison Officer along with Thakin Mya. In early August 1940, Aung San left Burma with the intention of seeking help in China but he was contacted by a Japanese Kempeitai (police of the Imperial Japanese army) in November, who promised to help the Burmese.
The Japanese pledge to aid the Burmese was motivated by Japan’s desire for a quick victory over China. In order to achieve this objective, they needed to cut off all Western aid from reaching the Chungking government through Southeast Asia, much of which arrived via the Burma Road. They were therefore willing to support the Burmese nationalists, who in turn were desperately in need of foreign aid. It was on the basis of this mutual need that Colonel Suzuki (Keiji) and Aung San initiated their cooperative relationship, and before the Japanese pushed into Southeast Asia, he had been appointed military leader of the Japanese-trained Burma Independence Army (BIA), which was later renamed the Burma Defence Army (BDA).
Soon after Japan occupied Burma in 1942, Aung San was made the Defence Minister. During this period, Aung San became increasingly popular among his people, who affectionately called him ‘Bogyoke’ (Supreme General) and he became the subject of musical compositions widely sung throughout the country.
Despite his high military ranks and recognition by the Japanese, Aung San started to prepare for resistance against the Japanese as he was convinced that the Japanese were not sincere with their promise for the independence of Burma. Crucial to his plan was allying with the Karen people who never severed their ties with the British.
But the situation with the Karen people was not good; a bloody racial conflict in Myaungmya district in 1942 made the Karen regard the Burmese thakins and the BIA as their enemies. This incident occurred when the British were withdrawing from Burma in the wake of the Japanese and BIA military invasion. In the last days of March 1942, many disbanded Karen troops who had served in the British army returned to their homes in the Irrawaddy Delta region, carrying with them their army weapons. This coincided with a period in which the BIA was badly in need of firearms for the large number of new recruits, and since the BIA knew about the weapons in the possession of the Karens, they decided to seize them.
A few villages had surrendered their arms to the BIA at the suggestions of some of their leaders such as Saw Pe Tha, a former minister in the Burma government. However, afterwards, the villages were attacked and looted by well-armed gangs. Since the BIA was the only well-armed group operating in the area, the Karen people concluded that the BIA was behind the robbery and looting. A full-scale, savage communal gang war then raged in Myaungmya district and spread to adjacent Karen areas in Bassein, Henzada and Pyapon. More than 1,800 Karens were killed.
Aung San was in Upper Burma when the Myaungmya incident occurred and was extremely distressed when he heard about the situation. The incident deepened racial resentment between the Karen and the Burmans. It was a difficult time to bridge the gap but the mounting hatred for the Japanese within the Karen community made their leaders search for a way out. Without choice, the Karen leader Saw San Po Thin met Aung San in Rangoon in November 1943.
During their conversation Saw San Po Thin said, referring to the Japanese:
The People you brought are terrible’, to which Aung San answered, ‘Yes, and we need to fight them now.
And when Saw San Po Thin said that he led the racial incidents of 1942, Aung San replied with a broad smile, ‘a brave enemy is a good friend’. From this meeting the reconciliation between the two ethnic groups began. They agreed that since Burma was in a critical state, they should put aside any ill feelings they might have for each other and strive for unity. Aung San himself toured the delta areas in September 1944, with his wife Daw Khin Kyi and Bo Zeya, Bo Let Ya, Saw Kyar Doe, Saw San Po Thin, and some other leaders, and during his tour he always offered his apologies for the misdeeds of his men.
During the months of August and September 1944, Aung San initiated a clandestine anti-Japanese campaign. Several secret meetings were held in Rangoon and in one meeting the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO), later known as the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), was created through the proposal of Aung San, which called for countrywide resistance against the Japanese.
Armed resistance began on 27 March 1945. In the AFO manifesto, Aung San exhorted his people to fight the Japanese for freedom. Until then, he was not certain that he would get British support. Captain Takahashi, who was assigned to watch him closely, noticed that Aung San was planning something. In his attempt to persuade Aung San to remain loyal to the Japanese, he asked Aung San what kind of deal he had made with the British. He recalled Aung San’s words: ‘Our deal is total independence for Burma .…’
Aung San also gained the trust of British military commanders. Before any decision for the future of the BNA was made, Aung San met General Slim at the latter’s headquarters in Mekitila. Throughout these meetings, Slim and Aung San took adversarial positions, with Aung San repeating demands and Slim rejecting them. In the end, Slim found Aung San an honest man. In his memoirs, Slim described his encounter with Aung San: ‘I was impressed with Aung San.’
Aung San also won the support of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was then the Commander in Chief of the Allied Army in Southeast Asia, who was planning to make Aung San Deputy Inspector General of the Burma Army, with the rank of Brigadier General. Aung San was only thirty when he earned the respect of all these leaders.
In 1945, the British came back to Burma with the ‘White Paper Policy’ which mandated that Burma would remain under British rule for three more years. Aung San’s AFPFL became the major organisation opposing the White Paper Policy. He and his AFPFL demanded complete independence and orchestrated serious political unrests. As a result, the British government agreed to revise the White Paper Policy and invited Aung San to London for final negotiation.
On his way to London, he stopped over in India and stayed at Nehru’s house in Delhi from 2 to 6 January 1947. He attended many functions that Nehru had arranged for him. He showed his skill in international diplomacy during his stay in Delhi. Even though he had developed a close relationship with Nehru, he accepted an invitation from Liaquat Ali Khan, Secretary of the Muslim League, the major political rival of Nehru’s INC Party, and also visited Mohammed Ali Jinnah and discussed matters relating to the boundary of Burma and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Aung San wanted to have good relations with all neighbouring countries and understood that the Muslim League would be the future leaders of Pakistan, which was to become independent country in the foreseeable future, sharing a border with Burma.
On 27 January 1947, Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Aung San signed the agreement on behalf of the United Kingdom and Burma respectively. By this ‘Aung San-Attlee Agreement’, independence to Burma was promised within one year. According to Para 8 of the Aung San-Attlee Agreement, the British and the Burmese were ‘to achieve the early unification of the Frontier Areas and Ministerial Burma within the free consent of the inhabitants of those areas’. It was further agreed that a committee would be set up forthwith to find ‘the best method of associating the Frontier peoples with the working out of the new constitution for Burma.
Aung San was the first Burmese political leader to concern himself with the problem of the country’s ethnic minorities. As early as September 1945, in his speech at the conclusion of the Kandy Agreement Aung San talked about the contribution of the Chin, Kachin and Karens, and emphasized the fact that the Karen suffered the most during the Japanese occupation. He also added his intention to raise the living standard of the indigenous peoples since he found that the conditions of these people were far backward than the Burmese people.
After the return of the British Civil Administration, in October 1945, Aung San as the president of the AFPFL declared that:
(the) AFPFL is fully determined to ensure and safeguard the legitimate aspirations of the national minorities […] democracy should be established to enable the hill peoples to express their views freely.
From 18 to 26 December 1946, Aung San launched a tour of the Tenasserim Division. During this trip, he visited the Karen village of Kappali in the Hlaingpwe district where 20,000 people had gathered from all over the district, some even walking from across the Thai border. Aung San, dressed in a Karen long-coat, was warmly welcomed by the Karen leaders. The crowd was impressed by his friendly words and by the modesty he showed by stepping down from the platform and standing to attention alongside the Karen leaders while the Karen national anthem was played; through his words and conduct, Aung San captured the hearts of the Karen.
Although many minority leaders believed in Aung San’s sincerity and emphasised his leadership, traditional mistrust for the Burmans still prevailed among the ethnic groups and especially among the Karens. Thus, when the Panglong Conference was held (in February 1947) with the objective of hearing the wishes of the frontier peoples and to determine whether or not they desired to join the new sovereign state of Burma, the Karens, who were divided into two groups — those who supported the AFPFL and those who favoured a complete separation from Burma — attended the conference only as observers. Meanwhile, the other minorities demanded statehood for the Shan, Chin and Kachin and three seats in the governor’s Executive Council.
After a series of negotiations, the Panglong Agreements was signed on 12 February without the Karen, and yet, when he gave his speech Aung San still emphasised his dream of a unified and free Burma and said: ‘In the past we shouted slogans: “Our race, our religion, our language.” Those slogans have gone obsolete now.’ He gave some examples of how different races were living in harmony in other countries, and continued that:
We will have our differences, but to take an example, if we are threatened with external aggression, we must fight back together with resolute will. The supreme commander of the armed forces may be a Karen, a Kachin or a Chin, but we must all rise and fight under his leadership.
The Panglong Agreement was the basis for the formation of the Union of Burma, as a result of Aung San’s dedication and determination. For that, he is regarded as ‘the founding father of the Union of Burma’.
After unifying the people of Burma and establishing agreements with the leaders of Burma’s ethnic groups, Aung San turned his attention to the elections for the Constituent Assembly, which was one of the final steps remaining before complete independence.
The tragic assassination of Aung San on 19 July 1947 left the people of Burma to celebrate their official independence on January 4 1948, without Aung San, ‘their founding father’ and, to use then Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s epithet, ‘the architect of Burma’s freedom’.
It is undeniable that the name Aung San and Burma’s Independence cannot be separated. As a person from academia, I admired Aung San in his pursuit of knowledge. Since his teenage years he read serious books and whenever he joined the school debates, he mentioned the names and the works of these leaders including Abraham Lincoln, George Stevenson and James Watt as examples. I also admired his courage in trying to master the English language. According to his friends at the university, his English was clumsy and his speeches were incomprehensible.
Knowing that English was an important medium for expressing his thoughts and ideas in a country of many ethnicities ruled by the British, he worked diligently to improve his English. Within three years he became very successful as an editor of the university magazine, where the contributors were highly intellectual journalists, professors, and politicians. This proved his intellectual strength — of having a wide knowledge with good command of both English and Burmese.
From a political perspective, he was indeed an effective revolutionary leader, but it is difficult to say whether he could have saved Burma from the economic vicissitudes that have occurred since independence.
Could Burma now look like India, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, or Pakistan if she had stayed in the British Commonwealth of Nations?
We do not know and can only guess. Cooperation with England may have been more economically and militarily beneficial than total rejection of the Brits based on a radical political ideal. Perhaps if he could have persuaded his AFPFL leaders to stay in the British Commonwealth instead of complete independence, Burma’s destiny could have been different.
Regarding his personality, I agree with a friend who opined him as being in a constant struggle between ‘idealism’ (freedom from Great Britain) and ‘pragmatism’ (using this group to attain the ideal). His charm, academic savvy and availability placed him in leadership roles during his student days. He used these tools to move into leadership roles in political structures. Aung San was used by the Japanese to attain their goals and at that point he saw pragmatism at work. Aung San used that pragmatism to ally with the Brits to get rid of the Japanese. He allied with the communists to get rid of the Brits. Then he allied with the ethnic minorities to take the Executive Council.
He was saying the right things publicly about his ideal (freedom from Britain) but in conferences and daily conversations he was charming, compromising and cooperative.
Like all other human being, Aung San was not free from mistakes. He trusted his people too much and seemed to be over-confident of their loyalty. He was informed of the stolen weapons but was not vigilant. Or perhaps his focus was entirely on the final stage of the building of the Union of Burma that he neglected the security matters. This lack of precaution cost his and the lives of his cabinet members. The country almost collapsed and he missed seeing the independent Burma that he dedicated his whole life to realise.
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