Why we all should support Aung San Suu Kyi: Part 1

31 January 2022
Aung San and Khin Kyi wedding

Aung San and Khin Kyi wedding / Wikimedia Commons

After World War II, the British Empire confronted the law of diminishing returns with regard to their looting and pillaging of their colonial territories.

So, they pulled out, but divided those territories in a manner that was generally certain to provoke sectarian conflicts.

Some of these territories pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and became thriving secular states — India and Singapore being prime examples.

Others ended up either misogynistic, authoritarian, xenophobic, genocidal, military dictatorship, or a combination of those — Myanmar ticks all those boxes.

Up until the middle of the 16th century, the Toungoo Empire under Bayinnaung was the largest empire in South East Asia stretching from what is today Manipur in north-east India to Cambodia, Bangladesh, and China's Yunnan province. This all fell apart when Bayinnaung died in 1581 and the kingdom completely collapsed by 1599.

After Portuguese mercenaries seized the city of Syriam, Bayinnaung's successors got a wake-up call. They defeated the Portuguese in 1613, and established a smaller but more structured kingdom.

Over the next two hundred years, the kingdom successfully fought wars with Siam and China. By 1817, Burma (as it was now known) had almost reclaimed their former glory by expanding into the second largest empire in the history of South East Asia.

Unfortunately for Burma, this meant that their territory now encroached upon British India. In the First Anglo-Burmese War (1826), the British took Arakan, Manipur, Assam and Tenasserim. In the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852), the British captured Lower Burma. Finally, the British took all of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885).

The reign of the British in Burma followed the recipe of other British colonies; they put in place good civil service systems, built railways, and ruthlessly stamped on local aspirations for independence.

In April 1937, Burma was declared a separately administered British colony. Ba Maw, a lawyer who became first Prime Minister, was an outspoken advocate for Burma self-rule. He was also opposed to Burma participating in World War II. So, the British arrested him for sedition and sentenced him to a year in jail.

Meanwhile, in 1940, a young law student turned political leader named Aung Sun, found himself facing a warrant of arrest for his efforts to organize a revolution against the British. He fled the country via China, eventually ending up in Tokyo, Japan.

Aung Sun adopted Japanese ways immediately; he dressed in a Kimono, gave himself a Japanese name "Omoda Monji", learned the Japanese language, and bought into their ideology.

In early 1941, with the help of Japanese intelligence, Aung Sun secretly returned to Burma. He recruited thirty of his fellow activists and left the country, once again with assistance from Japanese intelligence. The group were taken to the Chinese island of Hainan which the Japanese had captured and turned into a training camp.

Aung Sun was 25 years old at the time.

The " Thirty Comrades " trained for six months on Hainan with Japanese officers. Aung San himself and two others received special training, as the Japanese were sure of conquering Burma and so earmarked the three for leadership positions thereafter.

Their training was clearly excellent because between November and December 1941, Aung Sun and his colleagues recruited 3 500 fellow Burmese as soldiers.

(Remember that this is happening against the backdrop of World War II. On 7 December 1941, " A Date Which Will Live in Infamy ", the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was attacked by 353 Japanese aircraft, destroying American ships and planes, and killing more than 2 400 people.)

On 28 December 1941, Aung Sun and the 30 comrades gathered in Bangkok with their Japanese handler, Colonel Suzuki Keiji. They collected their blood from cuts in their arms, mixed the collected blood with alcohol in a silver bowl, and drank from it , pledging eternal loyalty to each other.

This "thway thauk" blood ceremony, a Burmese aristocracy tradition, marked the founding of the Burma Independence Army .

Over the next months, the British took a pounding as the Japanese invaded alongside the Burma Independence Army, advancing on the capital Rangoon which fell in March 1942.

Aung Sun was injured during the Burma campaign and was admitted to the Rangoon General Hospital. There he met Khin Kyi, a senior nurse at the hospital.

In July, the Burma Independence Army was re-formed as the Burma Defense Army (BDA). Aung San was put in charge of the force and promoted to colonel. He was subsequently summoned to Japan, where Emperor Hirohito presented Aung Sun with the Order of the Rising Sun . By August 1942, Japan set up a Burmese Executive Administration headed by Ba Maw.

On 7 September, Aung Sun married Khin Kyi.

A year later on 1 August 1943, the Japanese formally granted Burma independence on condition that it would be under a wartime administration for the duration of the war. They appointed Ba Maw as leader with Aung San as second in command in charge of the army. The army adopted a motto, "One Blood, One Voice, One Command", which it retains today.

Between 1942-1945, Burma became a fierce battleground between the Allied forces and the Japanese. The concept of long-range jungle penetration units was first tested during this war by British Chindits under the leadership of Orde Wingate. The Americans followed suit with similar operation called Unit Galahad.

Aung San saw that the tide was turning against the Japanese and made plans to switch sides. secretly forming a group called "Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League" in August 1944. Aung San's forces began to secretly store supplies in preparation to fight against the Japanese.

On 27 March 1945, as Allied forces advanced towards Rangoon, the Burmese National Army switched sides and attacked the Japanese instead.

Three days later, the allied commander in Southeast Asia, Louis Mountbatten, formally recognized the Burmese army as "an Allied force" and helped to resupply them with arms.

The Burmese National Army fought the Japanese for the rest of the war. Allied forces retook Rangoon on 2 May 1945. The Japanese lost some 150 000 men in Burma. Up to 250 000 Burmese civilians are believed to have died the conflict.

Following the war, Aung San was de facto Prime Minister of Burma; and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee invited him to London in early 1947 to negotiate the conditions of handover of power. This agreement was signed on 27 January.

Two weeks after the signing of the agreement with Britain, Aung San signed an agreement with leaders representing the minority Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic groups which committed them to joining a united independent Burma. Leaders of the Karen ethnic group were not consulted and were not a part of the agreement as they wanted a separate state within the British Empire.

At the first general election held in April 1947, Aung San's party ran virtually unopposed, winning 176 out of the 210 seats in the Constituent Assembly.

After his victory, Aung San began to form his cabinet. He persuaded the Karen leader Mahn Ba Khaing, the Shan Chief Sao Hsam Htun, and the Tamil Muslim leader Abdul Razak to join his cabinet.

A little after 10:30 AM on 19 July 1947, a single army jeep carrying armed gunmen in military fatigues drove into the courtyard of the building where Aung San was having a meeting with his new cabinet.

Four men ran up the stairs towards the council chamber, shot the guard standing outside, and burst into the council chamber. Aung San stood up and was shot in the chest. He died on the spot.

Four other council members were also killed immediately and three others died later of their injuries. Only three in the room survived.

Aung Sun and Khin Kyi had four children.

One son, Aung San Lin, died by drowning at the age of 8. One daughter, Aung San Chit, died after shortly after birth.

That left one son, Aung San Oo, and one daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi.

(Join me tomorrow for the rest of the tale.)

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