In the year 1878 more than 200 Burmese princes and princesses were rounded up and mercilessly killed in the palace massacre that marked the young Prince Thibaw’s accession to the Burmese throne. His father King Mindon had just died leaving no designated heir out of all of his capable sons. The sexually promiscuous king had no less than 50 wives and concubines and more than 200 sons and daughters.
His trusted brother Crown Prince Kanaung was brutally murdered in the palace revolt led by his two eldest sons in 1866. Since then he had refused to name another crown prince to avoid similar bloodshed among his no fewer than seventy sons. While he was on his death bed his chief queen, Sin-byu-ma-shin, and senior ministers picked Prince Thibaw who was then a young Buddhist monk, and the weakest of all the sons, to marry the queen’s daughter, Su-pha-ya-lat, and become the next king.
And to avoid future disturbances all other princes and princesses were put to death. As tradition prohibits the dropping of royal blue blood onto the ground, everyone including the very young ones was put in a velvet bag and his or her throat crushed with a short bamboo truncheon. Also to drown out the hapless cries and the death screams of their half brothers and sisters the new king and queen celebrated their accession to the throne with many loud concerts for seven days and nights.
News of the cold-blooded massacre was received with horror throughout the civilized world especially in Britain as more than half of Burma then was already in British hands after the two Anglo-Burmese wars. The 19th century was no longer a dark age and the English newspapers and politicians in London called for a British invasion to end the barbarous little kingdom of Burma. Also there were many commercial reasons to invade Upper Burma and the rival French were suspected of helping the Burmese to develop weapon manufacturing plants and other industries.
The rest of Burma fell into English hands in 1885 without a serious fight but it took five years and nearly 100,000 British and Indian troops to quell the simmering Burmese rebellions and finally pacify Upper Burma. The spirit of violent nationalism to kick the British out of Burma was then dormant for a long while but resurfaced in the 1930s; first as a violent peasant rebellion and then as a student revolt in Rangoon University.
By 1916 the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) founded earlier by Sir Maung Khin and U May Aung had established itself as a national organization with branches throughout Burma. “It was more social in nature than political, sponsoring non-monastic Buddhist schools – called National Schools – which were to become the hotbed of anti-British agitation,” Khin Thida wrote in her book A Twentieth Century Burmese Matriarch.
Within a decade the YMBA had also crystallized into a grassroots political organization called the GCBA (General Council of Buddhist Associations). “Embracing many of the earlier Buddhist groups it became the matrix out of which all later nationalist political parties and groups were formed,” Khin Thida also wrote in her book.
Anti-British Extreme Nationalists
The Great Depression hit Burma in 1930 and rice prices plummeted. As a result, countless number of peasant farmers lost their paddy lands and, in many cases, their young daughters to ubiquitous Chittys, the Indian money lenders. Sir J.A. Maung Gyi’s government didn’t realize the seriousness of the peasants’ plight and rejected their pleas for temporary tax relief.
A GCBA member, ex-monk Saya San, proclaimed himself the future Buddha and the King of Burma and started a peasant rebellion. Even though no Burmese politicians had supported the rebellion it spread like wild fire all over rural Burma. The English governor Sir Charles Innes came back with two Indian Divisions and brutally crushed the rebellion.
The short-lived rebellion made Dr. Ba Maw and U Saw immensely famous and popular as the lawyers defending captured Saya San in court even though he was hanged after his plea for leniency was rejected by the British governor. And this made the young Aung San more determined than ever to fight the British with violent means.
By then he belonged to the nationalist organization called “Doh-bamar Asi-a-yone” (We Burman Association) founded by the extreme nationalist who called themselves thakhins (Masters) as Burmese servants then were to use the term thakhin when they addressed their British overlords. Many of the thakhins were progressive young students from Rangoon University. Most active among the young thakhins and the University student activists were U Nu, Aung San, Than Htun, and Kyaw Nyein: the four.
(There were many other famous names in the extreme nationalist movement, but this concise essay concentrates only on main four figures to assist non-Burmese readers to easily follow the complex history of modern Burma.)
The eldest U Nu was a religious and conciliatory elder figure, the Communist Than Htun and the Socialist Kyaw Nyein were ideologues, and Aung San was indecisive on which side of the divide between the dictatorial Communists and the democratic Socialists he would turn. The two things the four had in common were that they all were committed lefties and they all wanted to kick the British out of their Burma by any mean.
They basically hijacked the a-political Rangoon University Student Union from the pro-British faction in 1935 and within a year turned it into the highly-charged ABSU (All Burma Student Union) for their political activities.
And the four would eventually decide within the next decade what Burma will become in the near future and inadvertently send their beloved Burma onto her long road to ruin.
With the support of the professional and commercial classes the elder and mature Burmese politicians organized in mainstream political parties were willing to side with the British during the war and only to later pursue dominion status within the British Commonwealth through non-violent and non-revolutionary means within the legal and constitutional framework.
But immature and impatient young thakhins like Aung San and his comrades were forming two secret political parties (Communist and Socialist) and seriously agitating the populace and demanding complete independence from the British Commonwealth.
That is the main reason why British Burma is in ruin while Malaysia and Singapore of British Malaya and also British India prospered after their independences. The mainstream nationalist politicians there were successful in peacefully transforming their colonial societies into modern democratic ones within the British Commonwealth with British economic and military support while left-wing young Burmese nationalists completely abandoned the monthership called the British Empire and drifted alone on the rough sea and so got themselves into the troubles they couldn’t really handle.
Out of the four, our brash and daring Aung San, was especially ready to seek any aid and do anything to end British rule without foreseeing the dire consequences of his actions. That was the downfall of Burma and her poor people.
Beginning of the End of Civil Society
In the beginning the British administration didn’t take Aung San seriously. The colonial police even issued a warrant in 1942 for his arrest with a measly 2 rupee reward. Only later when he became famous among the people as Bogyoke Aung San they started taking him as a serious threat to British Burma. This extract is from the book Defeat into Victory by Field Marshal Sir William Slim of the British 14th Army:
Aung San had had a chequered career. In 1930 as an undergraduate at the Rangoon University, like most Asian students, he took an active, and at times rather violent, interest in politics. By 1939, he was the secretary of an extremist nationalist minority group and served a seventeen-day prison sentence for his activities.
About this time he was contacted by Japanese agents, who saw in the young nationalist a promising tool for their own ripening designs. It thus happened that, in 1940, when Aung San’s organization was proscribed, he and some thirty others of its members were able to evade police and reach Japan.
Here, they were given military training in a Japanese officers’ school and were indoctrinated with the believe that Japan would shortly drive British out of Burma and bring freedom to its people. When invasion did occur, Aung San and his companions came with it.
Japanese used them as nucleus round which to collect irregular Burmese forces and to organize a Fifth Column throughout the area of operations. They were undoubtedly a help to their masters in many ways and, on one or two occasions during the British retreat, fought bravely against us, though their chief combat duties were ambushing and murdering of stragglers.
Born in 13 February 1915, the son of a small town lawyer from Natmauk in Central Burma, Aung San was influenced by the nationalist cause since a very young age as his grand uncle Bo Min Yaung was a local resistance fighter who was captured and his head chopped off by the British forces during the so-called pacification of Burma.
Even though Aung San wasn’t an ideologue he co-founded the CPB (Communist Party of Burma) in 1939 with Than Htun and became the first secretary-general of the Party. Later he also cofounded the PRP (People’s Revolutionary Party which later became the Socialist Party) with Kyaw Nyein. He really was on the fence between the Communists and the Socialists.
For the dual purpose of escaping the British net closing around him and also to ask Mao’s Communists in China for help he travelled by sea to the port town of Amoy in China. But Amoy was already in Japanese hands and Japanese Intelligence got him as they were already waiting for him there.
He was then taken to Tokyo and Colonel Suzuki’s Minami Kikan, a secret unit of Japanese Army preparing for the invasion of Southeast Asia and Burma in particular, which offered to help him form an army to fight the British for Burma’s freedom. By then the Japanese army had occupied coastal China but Chang Kei Sheik’s Nationalist Government was still surviving in Yunnan on the Western aid coming through the “Burma Road” connecting Lashio in northeast Burma and Kunming in southwest China.
The western military aid shipped to Rangoon and then railroaded to the railhead town of Lashio were trucked by long convoys to Kunming. The Japanese wanted to cut that vital supply line and Aung San seemed to be the perfect puppet to help them achieve that specific goal. The promised independence was just a sham to trick him into accepting their offer.
Aung San accepted and came back to Burma incognito and brought back to Japan twenty-nine of his young comrades including Ne Win, who later became the notorious dictator of Burma for more than three decades, to receive military training and become the nucleus of his BIA (Burma Independence Army). The legend of the Thirty Comrades was born.
They formed the BIA with troops of Burmese then living in Bangkok in late 1941. Aung San’s ambitious plan was to also form the Provisional Government of Burma and then declare war against Britain and enter Burma ahead of the Japanese army and then declare independence once the British were defeated.
But the Japanese army rejected his grand proposal and they marched ahead into Burma and Aung San and his BIA had to follow from behind. Many more Burmese and ethnic minorities with dubious characters joined the BIA on the border and their many lawless actions muddied the reputation of the BIA.
The living-off-the-land Japanese army as well as BIA committed atrocities such as extrajudicial killings and rapes and lootings on their warpath and it basically hardened initially the cordial attitude of Burmese people towards the so-called liberators.
After they overran Burma the Japanese army picked former Prime Minister Dr. Ba Maw as the head of the puppet government for so-called liberated Burma. The Japanese wanted some well-known figure to head the puppet government for credibility reasons and they, as fascists, didn’t really trust left-winger Aung San. Aung San was only the defense minister and Kyaw Nyein was a deputy foreign minister to the Foreign Minister U Nu.
The Burmese Communists broke ranks and refused to cooperate with the Japanese as the international Communist movement rejected fascism as an evil disease infecting the world. And their atrocities in China didn’t help the Japanese in Burma too. Kenpetai, the Japanese secret police, then started hunting down the Burmese Communists and torturing and killing them all over Burma.
Having established contacts with the British in India, Than Htun went underground and later organized the anti-fascist movement together with the rest of the four. AFO (Anti-Facist Organization) comprising Than Htun’s Communist Party, Kyaw Nyein’s Socialist Party, and Aung San’s BNA (Burma National Army) was formed and was later renamed the AFPFL (Anti Fascist Peoples’ Freedom League) after the Japanese were defeated and the English came back.
The A & F emphasized the staunch anti-fascist stance of Than Htun’s Communists and the P & F stood for the Peoples’ Freedom stance of Kyaw Nyein’s Socialists and L represented the combined forces with Aung San’s PVO. The AFPFL known as Pha-sa-pa-la in Burmese would eventually rule chaotic Burma for more than a decade from 1947 to 1962.
Our little town, Moulmeingyun, also went through hell with the rest of Burma during the big war. A Japanese army unit together with a company of BNA stationed at the town started arresting and torturing and murdering the alleged British spies, aka the Christian Karens.
The BNA unit was headed by a young Burmese lieutenant called Sein Lwin a graduate of the Mingaladon Academy and my father’s friend. Years later he would become the notorious Home Minister in Ne Win’s Socialist Government and then president during the 8-8-88 uprising, to be known as the Butcher of Rangoon. The young girl he met in our town and fell in love with during the big war even became his dear wife.
My mother who was just 15 years old and studying for the matriculation at the missionary-run ABM boarding school in Rangoon had to come back home together with her eldest brother, a college student. By then he had been a member of the CPB in Rangoon and became the leader of the CPB cell in our town. During the fight against the Japanese army in early 1945 he was the political leader while Sein Lwin was the military leader of the town.
Nobody in our town really knew the difference between the Communists and the Socialists so they just followed the respective leaders according to their blood lines. Most of our family and close relatives including my young mother became Communists while many other families became Socialists and eventually ended up killing each other during the long civil war.
While all this was happening in Burma the last pre-war Prime Minister U Saw was languishing in a British jail in Uganda. In 1941 U Saw was invited to meet Sir Winston Churchill and other British leaders. So U Saw left Burma in October for London to reportedly to persuade the British to promise to give Burma a dominion status within British Commonwealth after the war. He was unsuccessful but Sir Winston Churchill promised to consider a dominion status for Burma after the war.
On his way back home he was accused of making contact with the Japanese and U Saw ended up in the Ugandan jail. He was released only after the war and he re-established his old right-wing Myochit party and his Paramilitary force Galone Tat (Garuda Army) with the help of the British.
The Second World War was finally over and complex political maneuverings had started among all the parties involved in the affairs of devastated Burma where civil society was rapidly dying.
Aung San Versus Sir William Slim
While the war was raging in Burma Sir Dorman Smith and his exiled government in Simla, India, were preparing a detail plan for post-war Burma. Whatever their plan was it certainly didn’t involve Aung San and his nationalist comrades. Their very first major act in re-conquered Burma would be to arrest Aung San and charge him with the specific war crime of murdering the Indian headman in Tha-hton. They had all the evidence and witnesses they needed for the case.
But Field Marshall Sir William Slim of the British 14th Army had a very different idea. Slim and his army were facing the immediate reality of trying to administer a devastated country. Even though insignificant compared to his 14th Army, Aung San’s 20,000 strong BNA could become a serious nuisance and also his AFPFL had a mass following, hence the capacity to disrupt British plans to restore law and order in Burma. So Slim devised a plan to cut a deal with Aung San. This extract is what Slim wrote in his book Defeat into Victory:
Parallel with this problem of the civil administration, was a smaller Burmese politico-military one. How to treat the Burmese National Army, originally Japanese sponsored, but now in arms against them? I had all along believed they could be a nuisance to the enemy but, unless their activities were closely tied in with ours, they promised to be almost as big a nuisance to us. It seemed to me that the only way satisfactorily to control them was to get hold of their Commander-in-Chief, Aung San, and to make him accept my orders.
When Slim requested the approval from his boss Lord Mountbatten the Allied Supreme Commander Southeast Asia of his plan to recruit Aung San and his BNA, Sir Dorman-Smith strongly and so rightly protested. He and his exiled government wanted to avoid any British action that would give credibility to Aung San. But recognizing the potentially powerful position Aung San occupied Lord Mountbatten let Slim go ahead with his plan.
That was the most serious political blunder the British ever made in Burma as it inadvertently weakened their position in dealing with the nationalists from the extreme left side of the political spectrum.
Slim first met Aung San on 16 May 1945 in Meikhtila, after his 14th Army had reoccupied most of Burma. Slim wrote that the arrival of short, well-built Aung San dressed in the near Japanese uniform of a Major-General, complete with sword, startled some of his staff who had not been warned of his coming. This extract is from Slim’s book Defeat into Victory:
At our first interview, Aung San began to take a rather high hand. He was, he said, the representative of the Provisional Government of Burma, which had been set up by the people of Burma through the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. He was an allied commander, who was prepared to cooperate with me, and he demanded the status of an allied commander, not subordinate commander.
I told him that I had no idea what his Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League was or represented. As far as I and the rest of the world were concerned, there was only one government of Burma and that was His Majesty’s, now acting through the Supreme Commander, South-East Asia.
I pointed out that he was in no position to take the line he had. I did not need his forces; I was destroying Japanese quite nicely without his help, and could continue to do so. I would accept his cooperation and that of his army only on the clear understanding that it implied no recognition of any Provisional Government.
He would be a subordinate commander who would accept my orders and see that his officers and men also obeyed them and those of any British commander under whom I placed them. He showed disappointment at this, and repeated his demand to be treated as an allied commander.
According to Slim, Aung San finally gave in and accepted his terms and went back and within a few days as he promised to Slim his BNA troops still in Japanese uniforms and still carrying Japanese arms started appearing at the British positions and taking direct orders from the British commanders.
It appeared Aung San had lost the battle with Slim but he had definitely won the war with Dorman Smith’s government by cooperating fully with the British army. He effectively surrendered his ragtag BNA to the British. He knew there was no sense in fighting against the mighty British 14th Army. The ill-fated Bose and his INA (Indian National Army) was proof of that. The right-wing Indian nationalist leader Subhash Chandra Bose and his 50,000 strong INA by then were completely crushed by the British 14th army and Bose himself was on the run from British pursuit. Later Bose mysteriously disappeared in a plane crash and many of his INA men were arrested and put on trial for treason and war crimes by the British back in India.
Also the added bonus for Aung San was the Lord Mountbatten’s willing and eager absorption of 200 officers and 5000 men of other ranks from his demobilized BNA into the British led Burma Regular Army.
After independence Ne Win and his former BNA men would quickly take control of that British-built modern democratic army and convert it back into their original Japanese-built dark-aged dictatorial army, of course led by none other than the graduates of the old Japanese Military Academy. By then almost all the British-trained professional officers including the Karen army-chief General Smith Dun and Inspector General of Police Major General Htun Hla Aung were forced out, and another British-trained civil servant and Inspector General of Union Auxiliary Forces ICS U Tin Htut was murdered by unknown assassins.
Aung San & Lord Louis Mountbatten
Aung San sat together with the First Earl of Burma and the grandson of Queen Victoria, Lord Louis Mountbatten, in Kandy, Ceylon, in September 1945 and signed the Kandy Agreement to form the new Burma Regular Army. He was also offered the rank of Deputy Inspector General of the new Burma Army, but he declined it in favor of becoming a civilian political leader and the military leader of the PVO.
For some strange reason Lord Mountbatten and his personal staff especially Major General Hubert Rance (Mountbatten’s Chief Civil Affairs Officer for Burma during the war and later the last British governor of Burma) did not really know Aung San’s extensive left-wing background that well and they always accepted him as an honorable soldier and later as a social democratic politician, and thus completely dismissed Sir Dorman Smith’s informed opinion of Aung San and his extreme left wing comrades. This extract is from the book Mission with Mountbatten by Alan Campbell-Johnson:
I remember the first impact of the news of July 19 mass assassinations in Malta when I was returning from London, and the sense it brought that the frail fabric of Burmese Independence must surely disintegrate under this overwhelming blow. Great credit is undoubtedly due to Sir Hubert Rance for his steadfastness in this crisis, which in an instant deprived Burma of almost her entire Social Democratic leadership.
Only later after independence he was seriously alarmed by the actions of Aung San’s extreme left wing comrades now ruling the country. Then the last Viceroy of British India, Lord Mountbatten, was on a visit to Rangoon on 12 March 1948 only two months after independence to return the over-thirty-foot-high massive Throne of King Thibaw. In Jubilee Hall the bodies of eight assassinated leaders were still, seven months afterwards, lying in state in their glass coffins somewhat gruesomely with their mouths gaping wide.
And Mountbatten was visibly disturbed by the rapid deterioration of Rangoon within two months of so-called freedom from the British and the fact that the streets had a tattered and unkempt appearance and there was no atmosphere of civic pride or even control. In one incident his own car was kicked by a traffic-policeman on a Rangoon road. And there was a huge Communist demonstration of railway and dock workers during his visit.
This extract is also from the book Mission with Mountbatten by Alan Campbell-Johnson:
Mountbatten has spoken very frankly to the President, Thakhin Nu, and U Tin Htut, the intelligent and highly westernized Foreign Minister, urging them to give higher priority to the primary task which Aung San had set himself of raising the living standards of the people.
In their present precarious condition, he urged that they should seriously consider whether an anti-Communist Government with a policy of the wholesale and immediate expropriation of all private enterprise at home might not defeat its object with regard both to Communism and private enterprise.
Moreover, they were behaving in a very arbitrary manner in their external policy. Members of the British Commonwealth, originally exempted from the new law excluding the foreigners from owning immobile property, had now been lumped in with the rest.
Mountbatten said he could see no reason why a most-favoured-nation treatment clause could not have been applied, and advised them against passing any more discriminatory legislation of this nature without first consulting the Governments of India, Pakistan, and United Kingdom.
By then it was too late even for the Great Earl of Burma. Led by the left wing nationalists the country he affectionately loved and desperately tried to steer towards a better future was already on the slippery road to ruin.
Aung San, the National Leader
Now Aung San had all the credibility he needed to become the only national leader of Burma and Sir Dorman Smith and even Sir Winston Churchill who once called him a traitor rebel leader now hated him but couldn’t do a thing to stop his rise and rise.
Aung San also rapidly built the PVO into a 200,000 strong militia as a direct threat to the British administration while the British 14th Army was demobilized and the Indian Divisions were sent back home. He already had Jawaharlal Nehru’s promise that the Indian divisions wouldn’t be coming this time to save the besieged British from Burmese rebellions. The British were in Burma on their own now and Aung San had won on the military front without firing a single shot at the once mighty British 14th Army.
On the political front he used his AFPFL coalition of PVO, Communists, and Socialists to stage successive general strikes and after the September general strike in 1946 his nemesis Sir Dorman Smith was recalled by Sir Clement Attlee the Britain’s new Labour Prime Minister.
Unfortunately for Burma the conservatives had lost power in Britain and the British Socialists were in control and Attlee was so eager to let Burma go off her own bloody way.
As advised by Lord Mountbatten the new governor Sir Hubert Rance was sent to Rangoon with the specific mandate to negotiate with Aung San’s AFPFL. And Aung San became the unofficial Prime Minister by accepting the vice-chair of the Governor’s EC.
Sir Dorman Smith later wrote that he still believed if Attlee and Mountbatten had not intervened then he could have influenced the course of events in Burma so as to prevent the country from leaving the British Commonwealth and so prevent the civil war.
In November 1946 AFPFL called for independence within one year and in December 1946 Sir Clement Attlee invited the delegation of Burmese leaders to London to discuss Burma’s future. Burmese delegation comprised Aung San and AFPFL leaders from the government and U Saw and other leaders from the opposition.
“We want complete independence. There is no question of dominion status for Burma,” Aung San declared in New Delhi on his way to London.
Even without U Saw’s signature, the discussions with the British Government resulted in the Aung San – Attlee Agreement of 27 January 1947 which provided for the functioning of the Executive Council as an interim government and the holding of elections for a Constituent Assembly instead of existing Legislature under the Act of 1935.
But the clause 8b of the Agreement called for the unified consent of the peoples of the Frontier Areas on how their association with the overwhelming Burmese majority would be.
“The leaders and representatives of the peoples of the Frontier Areas shall be asked, either at the Panglong Conference to be held at the beginning of the next month or at a special conference to be convened for the purpose, to express their views upon the form of association with the government of Burma which they consider acceptable during the transition period”.
Aung San and the left-wing nationalists were just only one obstacle away from realizing their lifelong dream of leading Burma to a fully independent nation outside the British Commonwealth. That obstacle was the unified demand of highlanders like Shan and Kachins and Chins not to become independent together with the majority Burmese. They had never trusted the Burmese especially Aung San and his army, and wanted to be still under British protection.
So Aung San went to the Panglong Conference for the grand meeting between his government and the representatives and leaders from Shan, Kachin, and Chin minority groups in Panglong of now Shan State. Honestly believing the Aung San’s words that they would have a choice to go their own ways after ten years together with Burmese in the federal union the conference attendants signed the historic Panglong Agreement:
A conference having been held at Panglong, attended by certain Members of the Executive Council of the Governor of Burma, all Saohpas and representatives of the Shan States, the Kachin Hills and the Chin Hills, the members of the conference, believing that freedom will be more speedily achieved by the Shans, the Kachins and the Chins by their immediate co-operation with the Interim Burmese Government, have accordingly, and without dissentients, agreed as follows…
All 22 signatories expressed their willingness to work with the Burmese in order to achieve independence speedily and agreed in principle the formation of the Union of Burma. In return the 1947 Constitution guaranteed them the Right of Secession.
“Save as otherwise expressly provided in this Constitution or in any Act of Parliament made under section 199, every State shall have the right to secede from the Union in accordance with the conditions hereinafter prescribed.” the Chapter X of the 1947 Constitution clearly stated their Right of Secession.
And we all know what happened when they tried to practice that right later in 1962.
The Aung San – Attlee Agreement called for the election of the Interim Legislature and the formation of the Interim Government from among those elected to the Constituent Assembly with the inclusion of a small number of representatives from the non-indigenous minorities. By using the electoral machinery of the 1935 Government of Burma Act the Constituent Assembly was elected in April 1947.
Running unopposed in most electorates, AFPFL won an overwhelming victory in the April 1947 Constituent Assembly elections and Aung San formed the Interim Government of Burma. Aung San’s AFPFL won 176 out of 210 seats of the Constituent Assembly while Karens won 24, the Communist 6, and the Anglo-Burmese 4 seats.
The turnout was lower than a very low 50% since U Saw’s Myochit Party and other rightwing opposition parties boycotted accusing the ruling AFPFL and Aung San’s PVO forces of violent intimidation during the election campaign marred by murders and mayhem.
According to my mother my father told her that in the 3 M region of Middle Burma, his PVO stronghold, not a single group dared to raise their voice against AFPFL during the election campaign as everyone knew the dissenters wouldn’t be alive after that. Life in post-war Burma was dirt cheap and violence was the only means to solve the disputes not the ballot box. And Aung San’s PVO had many mean men like my father and his former BNA men to do just that.
Independence was inching closer and closer and then an unexpected event occurred and turned the Burma upside down on her head. The shock assassination of Aung San and most of his cabinet on 19 July 1947.
Assassinations that killed Burma’s Future
The PVO attempt on U Saw was assigned to a three man team. The shooters were Ba Swe and Phone Kyaw and the driver was Mya Hlaing. Ba Swe became famous as the writer Yangon Ba Swe and he later joined U Nu’s exiles in Thailand to fight Ne Win’s Socialist government in the early 1970s. He surrendered in 1980 and then wrote a famous book I, Exile about his experiences on the border with U Nu.
Phone Kyaw served in my father’s battalion during the war as he was a young cadet officer in the Academy. He later became a Communist together with my father. He was captured by the army and executed in the late 1950s. In the jungle my father met a Communist girl who was Phone Kyaw’s first cousin from the Delta and she became his dear wife and my mother.
Mya Hlaing also served in my father’s battalion during the war as he also was a young cadet officer. His brother Kyin Hlaing also graduated from the Academy and after the war he went back to Rangoon University and became a civil engineer and then worked for the public works department. He later became the Deputy Minister of Construction during Ne Win’s long rule.
His son was also from my university and we shared a dormitory room for a year and so often he openly talked about his uncle’s role in that failed attempt on U Saw’s life. At that time I didn’t know about my father’s involvement since my mother told me only in 1988. But the daring attempt of Ba Swe and Mya Hlaing was amazingly well known in Ne Win’s Burma since they both openly boasted about their involvements in their circles. Ba Swe himself once wrote in a magazine that the assassination was ordered by Thakhin Mya while Bogyoke was in the same room.
Immediately after my mother told me that story I had a gut feeling that the fourth man on that jeep could be my father himself as he was always very hands-on in whatever he’d done. But my old mother could not confirm or refute my suspicion. One thing about my father was because of his violent reputation his men or even friends didn’t dare say anything bad about him even in private. The detail story of him killing his Japanese teachers only came out after his death in 1980.
One young officer from his old battalion became a popular soldier-writer and later the powerful Managing Director of the News and Periodical Corporation of the Ministry of Information and he wrote that story as part of a series of articles about his wartime exploits in his government magazines Myawady and Ngwetayee in 1981. He also controlled the media sensors the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) so he could basically write anything he wanted. But he still held a perfectly good story till my father’s death. But I was told that he got into a serious trouble with his old mate General Kyaw Htin because of that story.
U Saw finally struck back on 19 July 1947. His gunmen busted into the conference room of the Government Secretariat during a cabinet meeting and shot down Aung San and most of his cabinet including Thakhin Mya. And he was expecting a phone call from the British Governor that afternoon to form a pro-British right-wing government after Aung San’s death; instead he got arrested by police deputy Chief Htun Hla Aung and hanged later. The assassination basically killed the possibility of a peaceful future for soon to be independent Burma.
What is happening in Burma now is the direct result or legacy of what happened in 1947, the one crucial year just before independence, and 1948 and ’49, the two crucial years immediately after independence.
The key players then were the three survivors of the four – U Nu, Than Htun, and Kyaw Nyein. Aung San had started Burma’s road to ruin by outmaneuvering the British and eventually forcing them out off Burma and placing the leftwing nationalists on the Peacock Throne of Burma. The three had no other choice but to continue on that road and inadvertently made Burma what Burma is now, a living hell on earth.
To be continued…