July 19th is Burmese Martyr’s Day. At 10:37 AM, traditionally, the air siren will sound in Burmese cities marking the moment Aung San and his cabinet were gunned down at a meeting in Rangoon, back in 1947. The current military dictatorship in Burma generally tries to keep Martyr’s Day observations low key — mostly because public displays of interest in politics might get sloppy; Burma has been in a state of civil war, more or less, since 1948, and it has been ruled by the military as an overtly totalitarian state since the 1980’s.
I’ve been trying to get a handle on what Burma is — it’s quite difficult really. It brings into question how to define any country really; we call our country America, ignoring the fact that we are not the only nation in the Americas. We call ourselves Americans, while the indigenous peoples of the Americas never chose ‘America’ as a name or chose the way of life embodied in our mostly European derived governance. Burma has a problem with its name, and with the governance that the name represents; beginning in 1824, Britain fought three bloody and expensive wars shaping a territory known as Burma and absorbing it into its Indian Empire.
The strongest political force in the Irrawaddy River valley region during the early 1800’s was the Kongbaung dynasty, which had fought at different times with China and Siam (Thailand) to create pretty much the borders as they stand today to the South and West. To the East they had to contend with British India which eventually would swallow them up. A quick look at the layout of the country is informative, especially with an eye out towards language. The Irrawaddy River is obviously the most important dynamic in a discussion of Burma, it begins up in the glaciers of the Himalayas, up in the North. Midway down out of the mountains the river has been joined by most of its major tributaries; here, the main city is Mandalay and from this region the Irrawady flows down to the lowland delta around the capitol city Rangoon. This stretch from Mandalay to Rangoon, or in the modern parlance — Yangon, is the area populated by the Bamar people, who speak the language we refer to as Burmese and dominate the politics of the country once called Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989.
Renaming their country Myanmar was a move on the part of the military junta to make a split with the British colonial past, but as well, it was an attempt to try and be more inclusive of the non-Bamar ethnicities who have been resisting Burmese rule for half a century: ‘Myanmar’ is derived from a literary name for the region that dates back to long before the British Empire, back around 1200 AD. Many refuse to use the term Myanmar because they feel it gives legitimacy to the current military rule, plus many others point out that Myanmar is still a Bamar term and does nothing to resolve the problems of the many ethnic minorities who feel cheated of any chance at self-determination within the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. While the Irrawaddy midlands and delta are controlled by the mainly Bamar military government, control becomes a thorny issue with the many minority peoples vying for self-determination in the hills all along the river valley and uplands. Historically, many of these peoples have struggled against Bamar domination even before the British colonial era, and continue to do so today.
The overarching discussion I find myself harping on over and over again in these articles is: how can I root for the underdog if I can’t decide who has a right to that title? The events remembered on Burmese Martyr’s Day highlight that most crippling ambiguity inherent in studying history, politics and human behavior in general: terrorists are freedom fighters, every tyrant is a hero to someone, and vice versa — one man’s underdog is a despicable bully to someone else. Diving right into the matter, let’s play Good Guy/ Bad Guy…
Aung San, leader of the Burmese Independence Army as well as the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League was born in 1915. By this time the British had ruled Burma outright for 20 years, after six decades before that of wars fought to gain control of the country. So the British were the Bad Guys. During the first few decades of Aung Sun’s life, resistance to British rule became more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than just easily-suppressed bursts of violence in the backwaters. A generation of Burmese scholars educated abroad began to organize and educate. In the thirties, a group of students began to call themselves ‘thakin’ — a Burmese term that essentially means ‘master,’ a term the British had come to expect to be addressed as. Aung San joined these upstart ‘thakins’ and the 1930’s were a tumultuous time of protests and politicking — Aung San became a founding member and the first secretary general of the Communist Party of Burma. The British decided to separate the governance of Burma from that of British India, giving Burma a constitution and also allowing for an elected administrative body of Burmese. Among the first prime ministers of this nominally democratic British Burma was a man named U Saw.
Meanwhile, an undisputed Bad Guy of Bad Guys appears on the horizon — over hills and mountains, and Hitler is his name. The mid-thirties also began a war between China and Japan, Japan being the aggressor and all around Bad Guy. Well, what is Britain to do? It doesn’t take too long for Britain to suddenly take on the aspect of plucky little underdog as the Axis powers roll all over continental Europe. The colonized peoples of Asia however are not so sure about this turn of events. The Bad Guy of my Bad Guy is my Good Guy, right? In 1941, U Saw, the Burmese prime minister, was arrested and carted off to Uganda by the Brits for making overtures to the Japanese. Aung San and a good number of his thakin compatriots fled Burma as the British were particularly twitchy about any rebellious activity during wartime; they were on route to seek help from China when they were intercepted by Japanese agents who whisked them away to Hainan island for special insurgency training. Thus was born the Burmese Independence Army, supplied and abetted by the Japanese.
The Japanese attacked British-held Burma on the same day as their attack on Pearl Harbor, December 11, 1941. To many South East Asians the ease with which Japan swept aside the European colonial powers was thrilling; that the Japanese, fellow Asians, were able to demonstrate such strength and power was at first a vindication of the long-abused spirit of Asian peoples. Unfortunately the nationalist fervor that had propelled the Japanese to such feats of self-empowerment were not particularly inclusive — Imperial Japan was at heart deeply racist, and the atrocities they committed across Asia eventually galvanized numerous resistance movements; to a large extent the massive support for the Communist Party in China can be seen as an extension of a grassroots upsurge of resistance to the Japanese invasion. In Burma, a Burmese resistance fighter was quoted as saying ‘if the British sucked our blood, the Japanese ground our bones.’ By 1945 Aung San had turned coat and thrown his lot in with the British — the Burmese Independence Army began a revolt against the Japanese.
World War II pretty much bankrupted Britain completely. The USA and the USSR had come out as the new world superpowers and had essentially carved up a good deal of the world into dependencies. The Labour Party came to power in England promoting plans to disengage with the majority of Britain’s colonial empire; other than Conservative Party stalwarts — among them Winston Churchill — most Britons did not see the point in expending more money and manpower bringing their colonial possessions to heel. None of the transitions to independence in South Asia were particularly graceful, Indonesia and Indochina declared independence from their Dutch and French overlords and the struggles that ensued were miserable messy disasters that bloodied the hands of many, including eventually the USA.
Over and over, throughout the former colonies, power struggles came to the surface that demonstrated how artificial and arbitrary the borders of the colonies had been. British rule in India had often played different ethnicities off of each other in order to maintain control from the top, in 1947 the decision was made, attendant on Indian independence to partition the region into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The results were horrendous — thousands were killed in the rioting that ensued as Hindus and Muslims raced to their new homelands. Next door in Burma a situation was brewing that in that same year would leave Aung San ripped apart by machine gunfire and Burma caught with almost no chance for democratic reconciliation between the various ethnicities living in an independent Burma.
Winston Churchill referred to Aung San as a “traitor rebel leader of a quisling army,” and the former Governor of Burma Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith was ready to arrest him for war crimes committed during his stint as a Japanese collaborator. Indeed, Governor Dorman-Smith, who returned during the short period of British rule after the Japanese were expelled, brought back his friend, former Prime Minister U Saw, grooming him to be Prime Minister a complicit not-quite-so independent Burma. Dorman-Smith was also a supporter of a ‘two Burma’ solution that would have essentially created a partition between Upper Burma and Lower Burma; Aung San however had helped organize a modestly diverse coalition from amongst the minority communities in preparation for a full and inclusive independent Burmese Government. And many feel that when gunmen loyal to U Saw, using weapons provided by provocateurs within the British military, murdered Aung San and his prospective cabinet that that had been the last and only chance Burma was going to get in building a peaceful democratic future. Almost immediately, civil unrest began in earnest, a ‘kaleidescope of insurgencies’ that resulted in 60,000 dead just in the first two years after independence.
There were so many guns, and so many men used to fighting by the time the British left. The Communists were the first to rebel, splitting away from the mainstream Burmese administration and setting up camp in rural areas. They still had the weapons they had used as part of the Japanese led freedom-fighting days, and soon gained support from Communist China up in the hills near the border. The British, as far back as the Anglo-Burmese Wars of the 1800’s, had developed a policy of arming various ethnic minorities to act as colonial troops and police, pitting them against the Bamar majority. This had intensified during World War II, Britain armed the ethnic Karens with the idea that they would fight both the Japanese and the BIA in order to defend a promised Karen State. After the Communists broke with the new Burmese government the Karens were next to rebel. And since independence, the civil war just keeps on and on: multiple insurgencies in support of, at the very least, 22 distinct ethnic minorities have arisen, supplied with money and guns from all sorts of shifting political entities. The drug trade continues to be a major force in these conflicts, the CIA having gotten into the opium business to fund its anti-communist operations during the Vietnam era; back in 1948 yearly opium production in Burma was about 30 tons, by the end of the twentieth century that figure was more like 2500 tons and the Burmese military is now quite complicit, profiting in the production and trafficking of not only opium but now methamphetamine as well.