This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 30 May 2016.
On May 30, 2003, a convoy of National League for Democracy members, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was brutally attacked on the outskirts of Depayin, a town in Sagaing Region.
A huge mob – perhaps more than a thousand people, many of them drunk and aggressive – were allegedly organised by the former military regime to terrorise the NLD procession. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi escaped with her life, but others were not so lucky.
The official police report indicates that only four people died, while other sources claim that the death toll was at least 70.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD bodyguards and support staff – completely outnumbered and outmanoeuvred – bore the brunt of the medieval fury. With instructions from The Lady not to retaliate, her team wilted under clubs, spikes and rods. Police and military officers in the vicinity were apparently complicit.
First-person accounts emphasise the stomach-churning carnage, soaked in belligerence and dread.
In the years since, it has been impossible to determine exactly what happened and who was responsible.
Writing in 2004, Paul Harris, a leading public law barrister from Hong Kong, noted that the accumulated “material is completely inadequate for a prosecution now, let alone in 10 or 15 years time when memories have faded and individuals have disappeared”.
Yet Mr Harris concluded his incisive opinion by arguing, “All indications are that the Depayin massacre was systematic large-scale murder of people because of their political views or affiliations, and as such, a crime against humanity.”
So many years later, the suggestion that the Depayin attack was supposed to kill Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has never been properly resolved.
When I now see senior NLD figures interacting with their counterparts from the military, or the Union Solidarity and Development Party, I wonder whether Depayin comes up. The common view is that the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the forerunner of the USDP, was instrumental in organising the attack.
In the old days, the USDA, alongside its banal governance and propaganda functions, also enjoyed a formidable reputation for mobilising local toughs to do the dirty work of the regime. With this history, the fact that the USDP became a relatively respectable political party is, in some senses, a miracle.
One reason the USDP is socially acceptable is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has avoided the obvious contention, mostly by ignoring it. She may even have forgiven those who orchestrated the Depayin attack. But she will never forget what happened.
The blood that was spilled 13 years ago this week reminds us of the sacrifices of those young men and women who took the hard option of peaceful struggle for a more democratic future.
On a couple of occasions I have talked with NLD activists who were in the convoy at Depayin. Afterwards, they did hard time in jail. The wounds are still raw. It is the kind of traumatic experience you carry around forever.
Today, if you take the time to watch the old videos and look at the photos from that period of NLD campaigning it is apparent just how much support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi generated when she travelled around provincial Myanmar.
It is easy to see why the generals worried how that support for the NLD would, eventually, overwhelm the military’s own claim to a political mandate. And that is what happened, after much delay and considerable effort to secure long-term control of the constitutional apparatus.
It makes you wonder why there was such unwillingness to countenance Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s active participation in political life. After the 1990 election, and then again before Depayin in 2003, and around the time of the Saffron revolt of 2007, there were chances for the generals to surrender power gradually. They failed.
So why did the top generals then end up relinquishing so much power after 2011?
As best I can work out, it was the unbearable tragedy of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 – and an official death count that included 140,000 people – that gave the military’s quiet reformists the impetus to push for more radical change. After so much pain, everything else felt insignificant.
Now, with half a decade of political and economic reform, Myanmar is a very different country than the one that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi travelled around back in 2003.
The Myanmar people are healthier and wealthier and better educated than ever before, and opportunities flow in boundless directions. Together, the people have a chance to build a society that will properly recognise all their sacrifices and suffering.
In the long term, the people of Myanmar will have to deal with so many painful incidents that a new process of justice and reconciliation will be needed. It is important that, whatever else occurs, we never forget the horror on the road outside Depayin.
Nicholas Farrelly is Director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala. His column appears at The Myanmar Times each Monday.