Conflict, Competition and Legitimacy: Holding on to the Memory of Aung San

by Anna Plunkett

16 August 2019

A defaced statue of Aung San in Myitikyna (Photo credit: The Irrawaddy)

 

General Aung San is venerated throughout Burma as the father of the nation. He is remembered as a strong leader and switched on politician, remembered as a man of honour and loyalty that has awarded him the local title of Bogyoke. He was the leader of the Thirty Comrades movement and was set to become the much-loved leader of Myanmar’s first independent government and as such has been memorialised throughout Myanmar with statues, buildings and roads among the most common commemorations. Perhaps the most famous use of his name sits with his own daughter who conflated their names as she is known today – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He is a man of great importance in modern day Myanmar, his status only growing since his daughter took up the mantel as state counsellor after the 2015 election. Yet, the growing endorsement of Aung San has proved controversial with students and locals in Karenni state being arrested for their opposition to the erection of a General Aung San statue in the state capital’s local park. This article will analyse the reasoning behind the growing popularity of the General’s iconic image and why such increases in popularity lack uniformity throughout Myanmar.

Legitimacy behind the General’s Image

General Aung San’s image can be found throughout Myanmar and there is no doubt it demands a great level of respect. He is remembered as the father of the nation, the leader of the Thirty Comrades, a Japanese-trained liberation army that fought the allied forces during World War Two. He transcended his military might to show his political prowess as a statesman, leading the Burmese forces to switch allegiance from the Japanese and strike deals with the allied forces toward the end of the war.[1] Then negotiating with British colonial forces to bring Burma its independence soon after the war in 1947. During this time, he also married a nurse, Ma Khin Kyi who would later become one of the country’s first diplomats and had three children. Yet, in the post-war period the Burmese nationalists began to factionalise and on 19 July 1947, he was assassinated during a committee meeting in Central Rangoon. It is suspected to have been an act by his political rivals within the nationalist movement. His death shocked and saddened the new nation, which -now leaderless- suffered from a power vacuum that left the central government scrabbling for control over Myanmar’s expansive territories. It would take General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962 and the famous ‘four cuts’ counter-insurgency strategy to restore the central government’s control over the majority of the country.

For his leadership role as a military general and as a politician General Aung San has historically been dubbed the father of the Burmese nation. He has also been titled as the father of the army. Though the relationship between the two has been turbulent over the successive military governments in Myanmar, he was a great source of legitimacy throughout the Ne Win period (1962-1988) as Ne Win himself was a member of the Thirty Comrades led by Aung San. This close relationship to General Aung San provided Ne Win with personal legitimacy as ruler and caretaker of both the military and the Burmese state. As such, during this period the imagery and promotion of General Aung San was profligate. Yet the bond between the father of the nation and his armed forces, which controlled the state lost favour after the 8888 uprising when his daughter rose to popularity on the back of the pro-democracy movement.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her Father’s Image

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar to care for her dying mother in 1988. Having studied at Oxford, she had married an academic there and settled down in her university town with their two children. Her father died when Suu Kyi was only two years old, she found herself witness to a growing uprising against Myanmar’s autocratic state. Approached by leaders of the movement Aung San Suu Kyi joined and lead the pro-democracy activists, appealing for non-violent and peaceful protest against the state. Support for the pro-democracy movement and the soon to be founded National League of Democracy blossomed under her leadership. Much like her military opponents in government she claimed her right to speak and lead the people of Myanmar through her relationship to her father, giving her first speech to the masses in-front of a poster of the General. She reclaimed the icon of the father of the nation for the opposition, using it to build her own support and support for the NLD. The importance of familial connections and networks in Myanmar can be evidenced through the success of this manoeuvre. After the brutal repression of the 8888 uprising which ended with widespread bloodshed in the capital, images of both ‘the lady’ and Aung San plummeted in popularity with the former being officially being banned under the  new military government[2].

An Aung San Statue in Bogyoke Park Taunggyi (Photo credit: author)

Since 2015 the military and the National League for Democracy have become uncooperative partners in the halls of government in Myanmar. Daw Suu’s party have taken over the parliamentary houses with landslide victories in both, yet the military’s grip on power remains. Their twenty-five per cent seat allocation in those same houses and control of central department have solidified their role as overseers of Myanmar’s political arenas[3]. It is therefore, perhaps surprising to see the increasing propagation of an image over which these two political forces have competed over in the past. General Aung San and his memory have become something of a myth tied to the legitimacy of the political forces within Myanmar’s political arena. His period of dis-favour is over, with the seventieth anniversary of Martyrs Day receiving special commemoration in Yangon in 2017. He is both the father of the army and nation and the father of the democracy movement (or at least its leader) and now this image of fatherly support is not in competition but rather represents the rightness of such cooperation between the two sides. As these two competing political forces, the military and the NLD attempt to navigate the spaces of co-existence they have found a common ground, or at least common imagery for legitimacy within General Aung San.

Aung San’s Image: Divisive Locally

Whilst the institutional support and favour has returned to General Aung San and his sacrifices to the establishment of the Burmese State, support at the local level has not followed. With the centenary of the Bogyoke’s birth in 2015 and the seventieth anniversary of his death in 2017 the unveiling of a new set of statues may not be that surprising, particularly given the changing political arena.  Nevertheless, such celebrations have been far from uniform. Protests in Karenni and Mon against the dedication and commemoration of new statues and bridges respectively have highlighted underlying tensions within Myanmar’s memory of the Bogyoke. Despite rising tensions the erection of such statues has continued including the unveiling of the largest General Aung San Statue in Mandalay in June 2017 prior to the July commemoration.

For whilst the memory and iconic image of General Aung San may legitimise the current governmental institutional establishment it has left many minority groups dissatisfied. General Aung San may have been the father of the nation that delivered Myanmar its independence, however many minorities felt betrayed by the independence negotiations which left them without a right to an independent state or secession. The infamous Panglong Agreement the General Aung San brokered with the ethnic minorities in 1947 provided some vague commitments to equality with few specifics on minority rights or protections.

The failure of the successive governments to protect minorities or recognise their independence from the state has left most with a sense of betrayal in relation to the father of the nation. The image and icon which is now appearing in their capitals, on their road signs, in relation to the infrastructure projects being developed throughout the borderlands. Rather then promoting the cooperation between the two major political forces within Myanmar, Aung San imagery is becoming the face of an encroaching hostile state within minority regions. Rather then unifying or celebrating the diversity of Myanmar through the promotion of a diverse set of icons the focus on the first nationalist leader is being perceived as at best centrist arrogance and at worst forced domination by the ethnic majority.

Conclusion

The manipulation of such imagery and historic icons within any state’s history is an important part of building a state narrative and sense of homeland. It is a history and discourse that will always be built by the victor of the struggle. Yet if Myanmar’s wishes to increase the inclusion of its ethnic minorities rather then lengthen the already extensive civil war in Myanmar they may do well to tread lightly with the establishment of such a uniform and state centric narrative in its borderlands. Myanmar is an ethnically and politically diverse state, it is also a community waiting for change and development away from the historical state domination. The commemoration of those from outside of the government-military institution even just within these localities could be an effective tool to build cooperation and goodwill over the hostility that is being entrenched through the dominance of majority narratives in minority and historically weak state regions.


Anna is a doctoral researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She received her BA in Politics and Economics from the University of York, before receiving a scholarship to continue her studies at York with an MA in Post-War Recovery. She was the recipient of the Guido Galli Award for her MA dissertation. Her primary interests include conflict and democracy at the sub-national level, understanding how minor conflicts impact democratic realisation within quasi-post conflict states. Her main area of focus is Burma’s ethnic borderlands and ongoing conflicts within the region. She has previously worked as a human rights researcher focusing on military impunity in Burma and has conducted work on evaluating Bosnia’s post-war recovery twenty years after the Dayton Peace Accords. You can follow her on Twitter @AnnaBPlunkett.


[1] See Seekins(2000) for an in-depth analysis of the special Burman-Sino relationship and the role of Aung San as a political and military leader.

[2] Testimony from authors in field interviews with activists from the 8888 student protests

[3] For further analysis on the role of the military in Myanmar’s parliament see Than (2018)

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