Remembering Myanmar’s national hero

Bogyoke Aung San in London

Myanmar is in festive mood this month as this year marks the birth centenary of Bogyoke Aung San, which falls on February 13, regarded as National Children’s Day.  

A multitude of cultural festivities – being staged chiefly by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in places like Yangon and Natmauk, Aung San’s birthplace – continue to capture the imagination of the public in the run-up to the big day.

If you missed some of these celebratory events, don’t fret. Many more are still to come.  

In Yangon, a traditional Anyeint performance by the Aung San Thuriya Hnin Si Anyeint dance troupe on February 9 and 10 at the National Theatre. Anyeint is a type of slapstick comedy that combines music and dance. It’s performed by not just professional comedians, but guest artists as well like actors, singers and dancers. 

In Mandalay, the famed Mandalay Marionette Theater will stage two shows on February 10. The Htwe Oo Myanmar puppet troupe will perform twice on February 11 in the same city. 

In Natmauk, the Phoe Chit dance troupe will perform on February 11 before embarking on a tour across the country. Natmauk will also host the Human Rights Human Dignity Travelling Film Festival on February 12 and 13 at Sutaungpyae Payagyi monastery.

These events serve to reinforce Aung San’s national resonance.  

Informally referred to as “bogyoke” (general), Aung San was born on February 13, 1915, in Natmauk, Magwe district, into a well-to-do family with a long pedigree.

He received primary schooling initially at the Vernacular High School in Natmauk and secondary education at National High School in Yenangyaung.

He attended Rangoon University (now the University of Yangon) in 1933 and took a degree in English Literature, Modern History and Political Science. Later he attended law classes at the same university.

It was during his university days when Aung San developed his interest in politics and became a prominent student leader while doing well academically. His political aspirations were only to have a profound impact on his university life.

Phoe Chit’s dance troupe is to stage a traditional dance performance celebrating Bogyoke Aung San’s centenary. (Photo - EMG)

As a student leader, he was threatened with expulsion from the university for refusing to reveal the name of the author of the article “Hell Hound At Large”, which criticised a senior University official. This led to the Second University Students' Strike and the university authorities subsequently retracted their expulsion orders. 

At the university, he served on various students' organisations and bodies, notably as Editor, Vice-President and President of the Rangoon University Students' Union, and as one of the founders and President of All-Burma Students' Union. He also served, even as a student, along with another student representative, on the University Act Amendment Committee appointed by the government in 1938 and succeeded in getting the progressive University Act passed by the Burma Legislature.

As a student, he contributed many articles to local English and Myanmar publications and served for a time on the editorial staff of the “New Burma”, the only Burman-owned and-managed, nationalist English-language tri-weekly. 

In October 1938, he ended his law studies abruptly and entered national politics to pursue the patriotic cause of national freedom by joining the Dohbama Asi-ayone (Thakins), at the time the only militant and extremely nationalistic political party in Myanmar. 

He became General Secretary of that party until August 1940 when he went underground to continue the fight for Myanmar’s independence. At this point, he was anti-British, and staunchly anti-imperialist. He became a Thakin (lord or master – a politically motivated title that proclaimed that the Burmese people were the true masters of their country, not the colonial rulers who had usurped the title for their exclusive use).

As a Thakin leader, he was arrested and detained in 1939 for being one of those leading "a conspiracy to overthrow the Government by force", according to a government communique. But he was released shortly after. 

He served also on the Working Committee of the All-Burma Peasants' League and was one of the principal figures initiating the Freedom Bloc of parties and elements interested in the struggle for Myanmar’s freedom, along with Dr Ba Maw, during 1939-40. 

He also acted as Secretary of the Freedom Bloc until he went underground. In March 1940, he led a Thakin delegation to the Ramgarh Session of the Indian National Congress at the invitation of the latter and visited several cities in India including Gaya, Benares, Allahabad, Agra, Delhi, Peshawar, Khyber Pass, Lahore, Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Bombay and Calcutta.

After that trip, he served for a short time on the Governing Body of University College in Yangon as a representative of the Rangoon University Students' Union while conducting an intensive anti-imperialist, anti-war campaign in Myanmar.

When a warrant was issued for his arrest, he went underground. He then went to Amoy, China, to find support for his cause: Myanmar’s independence from British rule. He stayed for about two months in the International Settlement there before the Japanese took him to Tokyo.

After three months in Tokyo, he returned to his country in 1941 to communicate the plans given by the Japanese to his comrades in Myanmar. He went back to Tokyo soon after, taking with him the first batch of young men to undergo military training by the Japanese for the purpose of staging an insurrection in Myanmar.

In 1942, he came to Bangkok to organise the Burma Independence Army with the help of the Japanese. He marched into Myanmar along with the latter as part of an invasion of the country. Ever since he and his comrades were in Japan and eventually became disillusioned with the Japanese. He even tried to organise an anti-Japanese movement before he came back to Myanmar.

He attempted to form an anti-Japanese Resistance Movement from 1943 and succeeded in forming the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League in August 1944.  Finally he led the open general rising against the Japanese militarists on March 27, 1945. In September 1945, he and 10 other colleagues went to Kandy to conclude a military agreement for the amalgamation of the Patriotic Burmese Forces (as the Resistance Forces were then called) with the Burma Army under British control. 

If Aung San were still alive, he would probably regret that Myanmar is still not a fully independent country, a point raised frequently by his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Myanmar already regained her independence, but the people are living under oppression, this is why, our country is not a sovereign state,” Aung San Suu Kyi said at a ceremony marking he father’s centenary.

“If my father were alive, he would be almost 100 years old. My father died when he was hardly 33 years old. We need to rethink how much we have done for the objectives of the independence. How much freedom and security have we restored? Freedom and security are always related together,” she said.