Mourners at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Yangon (Alex Bookbinder).
Myanmar’s observance of a long-supressed anniversary points to political tensions
At 10:37 am on July 19, fire stations across Myanmar sounded sirens in honour of the country’s fallen founding fathers, marking the anniversary of the 1947 assassination of seven members of the country’s pre-independence cabinet and two others.
In Yangon, thousands turned out on a gloomy Saturday morning to pay their respects at the mausoleum containing their bodies, including that of General Aung San – the architect of Myanmar’s independence, the founder of the country’s military and the father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Last year, however, there were no public Martyrs’ Day celebrations – indeed, there had not been any formal recognition of the holiday since 1988, when the military junta banned its observation in the wake of a student-led pro-democracy uprising that resulted in at least 3,000 deaths following a military crackdown.
“It’s funny, you know – in the past, during the Ne Win era, when you went to the cinema, we would all pay our respects to Aung San and the martyrs,” said Thet Naing, a resident of Yangon who came to pay his respects. “But nowadays, those kinds of displays aren’t so common, so it is good to see that we are able to honour our martyred leaders.”
In 1988, Suu Kyi won the hearts and minds of millions in Myanmar by asserting that her brand of democratic values represented her father’s vision for the country, which would not have agreed with the military’s myopic focus on stability and security. “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on,” she famously said at the time.
Following her release from house arrest in 2010, Suu Kyi has transformed from being an icon of resistance into a politician vying for real power within Myanmar’s political system, and has – out of necessity –agreed to a partial détente with her former jailers. On Saturday, Suu Kyi – along with prominent politicians including House Speaker Shwe Mann and Prime Minister Sai Mauk Kham – paid their respects at a ceremony held before the mausoleum opened to the public.
Suu Kyi’s new position as an accepted player in the country’s political scene may have been behind the government’s decision to allow public observance of Martyrs’ Day this year, because her democratic credentials could serve to bolster theirs in the run-up to by-elections that will be held later this year and nationwide polls in 2015. But her supporters aren’t necessarily convinced the government’s move is sincere.
“[The government] hasn’t changed completely, but they give off the appearance of it has because they want to send out good signals internationally,” Kyaw Oo, a banana seller and Suu Kyi supporter, said as he waited to enter the mausoleum. “They want to show the people they are good, and follow democratic principles.”
The National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi’s party, launched a signature campaign in May calling for the repeal of Section 436 of the constitution that gives the military effective veto power over all legislation and constitutional reforms. The campaign came to a close on July 19, and although a final tally is not expected until the end of this month, party spokesman Nyan Win claimed at the end of June that it had already collected some three million signatures.
“We can see there will be many hardships in the run-up to the next elections, because we have had many restrictions placed on us,” Tin Oo, the former commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the NLD’s vice chairman, said at a press conference. “But we will continue to do what we have to do – it should be free and fair.”
The post-1988 effort by the government to suppress and obliterate memory of Myanmar’s independence heroes was intended to put an end to a long history of student activism, because the country’s most prominent independence era-figures got their start as activists in Rangoon University’s student union.
“People are coming to show their respects. But there is a generation gap, as young people have been cut off from past history, the great activists of the past. These things have been removed,” said Sithu Maung, the founder of the Confederation of University Student Unions, a coalition that is attempting to revive the long-suppressed role of student activists in national politics. While the students have enjoyed greater political freedoms since reforms began in 2011, their activities remain closely monitored by the authorities.
Aung San’s cabinet was – by design – multi-ethnic, reflecting the pluralist nature of Myanmar’s population. Today, interreligious tensions have threatened to overshadow the country’s democratic development, but the inclusive spirit fostered by Aung San can act as a model for contemporary Myanmar to follow, claims Sithu Maung.
“The martyred leaders were of different faiths and ethnicities. An event like today can show our country’s true unity spirit,” he said. “Our country has transitioned to a democratic system, so the government should accept multiculturalism and diversity.”
Despite a heavy afternoon downpour, a contingent of NLD youth members staged a march in the vicinity of the mausoleum, shouting pro-democracy slogans that would have landed them hefty jail sentences – or worse – just a few years ago. Even today, local authorities routinely punish groups they deem guilty of “illegal protest,” but Tun Tun, the group’s leader, felt that the spirit of the day would preclude them from taking action.
“If the police want to arrest us, sure, they can do that. They own the law,” he said. “But we shouldn’t be afraid if we go to prison, because there were a lot of activists before our time who died, especially in 1988. We need to do what we need to do.”