It has been seventy years since our beloved Bogyoke Aung San was cut down at his prime and met a martyr’s death at the hands of a few power-hungry degenerates. His untimely death at a youthful age of 32 was a great blow to the then emerging nationhood of Myanmar, because he alone epitomized the hope and the spirit of the Myanmar people at that time. As Donnison wrote in 1947, “He alone was able to unite his people, speak for them, and give expression to their spirit as no one else had done since the day of Alaungpaya, two hundred years ago.”
Without having had any first-hand knowledge of the life and times of Bogyoke Aung San, the present younger generation and even the middle-aged generation may be unable to see and feel what Bogyoke really stood for and embodied. To many of them, Bogyoke is rather a distant, though highly venerated figure. It is about time to realize that Bogyoke Aung San has been the very embodiment of Goodness, Justice, and Truth. His exemplary life and his high ideas have been a constant source of inspiration to our aspiring youth.
Little Aung San was born on February 13, 1915 at Natmauk in central Myanmar. He was originally named Htain Linn, but the name was later changed to Aung San, it was said. Just to rhyme with Aung Than, the name of his older brother. He came from a family of rural gentry and patriots. His maternal granduncle U Min Yaung, an outstanding freedom fighter, was caught and executed by British imperialists after their blatant and unjustified annexation of Upper Myanmar in 1885. U Aung Than remembered that even as a boy Aung San was honest and trustful; he never lied, and when he was afraid of something he openly said so. He was also inquisitive and industrious. He attended the National High School at Yenangyaung. His destiny as a national liberator may have been moulded in part by his patriotic lineage and his National School upbringing. He went to the University of Rangoon in 1932 and took an arts degree there, and also read law for a time. As a student, he was a voracious reader, well-read in history and political science. He did not bother about his appearance and dress; nor did he care about idle formalities and courtesies. He scorned the Anglophile social values of the day. However, he tried hard to acquire a good command of English, which he later used so effectively in promoting Myanmar’s cause for freedom. He was a leader of the 1936 Rangoon University Student’s Strike that shook the British colonialism. In fact, his expulsion from the University for his refusal to submit to the high-handed authorities touched off that strike that propelled him to national leadership. He wrote in his self-portrait in 1946: “I won scholarships and prizes and a bright academic career seemed to be open to me. But politics called me away.” So in 1938, he left the law classes, entered politics, became Thakhin Aung San, and served as General Secretary of the Dohbama Asiayone (Burmese Nationalist League). He carried out anti-British activities, enduring hardships, often going hungry for lack of funds.
By 1940, realizing that the time had come to strike, Thakhin Aung San and Thakhin Hla Myaing (later Bo Yan Aung) slipped out of Myanmar and with much difficulty arranged for a group of young patriots to undergo an intensive military training on Hainan Island given by the Minami Kikan, a secret ad hoc Japanese organization. Thakhin Aung San emerged as the undisputed leader of these selfless young patriots who later became renowned as the ‘Thirty Comrades’. In early 1942, as Bo Teza, he marched into Myanmar as the head of the newly- formed Burma Independence Army (BIA). The BIA and the Japanese Army drove the British out of the country. In September 1942, he married a comely nurse Ma Khin Kyi who bore him two sons and two daughters. In 1943, he became a major-general (Bogyoke) and served as the War Minister. He was outspoken about the sham nature of the so-called independence granted by the Japanese in August 1943. Not long afterwards, as the Japanese fascists began to show their true colours. Bogyoke Aung San secretly helped found the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) and organized the resistance movement against the Japanese oppressors. The resistance broke out with full force on March 27, 1945.
In August 1945, just after the war, he was elected President of AFPFL, a truly united national organization at that time. He was then the leading spirit and chief spokesman for the Myanmar people. The year 1946 saw him tirelessly striving for Myanmar’s independence — organizing, inspiring, uniting and demanding. He went to London in early 1947 to press for an agreement with Prime Minister Attlee for Myanmar’s independence. Barely two weeks after his return from London, he was able to overcome some serious obstacles and successfully forged the historic Panglong Agreement on national unity and solidarity on 12 February 1947. He did it by the combined force of his personality and his patriotism. “Panglong was his coup de grace, raising him to the height of Anawrahta, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya”, as a contemporary put it. Myanmar’s independence had been established, all but in name, when he was assassinated on 19 July 1947 — the saddest day in the history of Modern Myanmar.
Like all human beings, Bogyoke Aung San must have had some shortcomings. The obvious one was that he was rather reckless of his own safety, and was too trusting, even with his political rivals. But his virtues decidedly far outweighed his shortcomings. It would be merely superfluous to say that he was intelligent, industrious, able, decisive, disciplined and courageous because such qualities are more or less indifferent in many true leaders. What made Bogyoke Aung San a great man, and why is he still enduring and endearing to us? The answer lies in his other outstanding qualities — his honesty, forthrightness, incorruptibility, selflessness, and love of truth.
In short, he had character — a quality that may be woefully lacking even in some great leaders. He once said to Bo Tun Hla, his personal assistant: “The most important thing in a person is character and love of truth.” Indeed, he practiced what he preached.
Bogyoke Aung San was a simple man who possessed and cherished homely virtues. As Dr. Maung Maung observed in his well-known book, Aung San of Burma, “People remember what he stood for: honesty and hard work, unity and discipline, and such homely virtues.” In fact, he expounded at length the need of hard work, discipline, and above all unity in building New Myanmar in his farewell speech (as it turned out to be) only six days before that fateful day, the 19th of July, 1947.
The late Lord Attlee, himself a great statesman, assessed that “Aung San was a statesman of considerable capacity and wisdom.” Major-General Suzuki (Bo Mogyoe), none other than the ‘Father of BIA’, judged that, “Aung San was absolutely honest. He was a good military leader too, brave and skillful. He was a patriot, and his patriotism and honesty won respect from all of us in Japan.” Bogyoke Aung San, therefore, was a soldier-statesman in the tradition of Kyansittha and Bayinnaung. It may be said that he ranked with Anawrahta, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya — three previous maker-unifiers of Myanmar.
Writer Dagon Taya’s portrait of Bogyoke Aung San as ‘the Wild One’ apparently was a hyperbole. Perhaps he was also merely rhetorical. Bogyoke’s seemingly crude and unsocial ways arose out of his disregard for idle formalities, superficial courtesies and pretensions. Bogyoke’s close friends and associates spoke of a man who was a considerate leader, a loyal friend, a respectful son, an affectionate husband and a loving father. Sometimes, he may even become a little romantic, humming a tune or two.
Bogyoke was a devoted family man who loved his wife and his three surviving children dearly. (The last child, a daughter, had died in infancy.) His favourite was the toddler Aung San Suu Kyi (‘Ma Ma Suu’ in the household parlance), the youngest and household darling, who is now a charismatic national leader in her own right. He spent what little time left after very busy and hectic days, with his family. Sadly, his happy family life was cut short.
Bogyoke said on more than one occasion that after gaining independence for Myanmar, he would like to retire from the public life, become a writer, and personally supervise the education and raising of his children.
Bogyoke Aung San may have been odd blunt, and sloppy in his manners and habit, but he was never pretty arrogant, high-handed and self-serving. His disregard for power and money was well known. He was simple in his tastes, unpretentious in his dealings, ever truthful in his words and deeds. That is why he was liked and respected by all who came to know him. His one-line note to Daw Khin Kyi from a meeting room, “Dear Kyi: If available, I want to eat pebyoke and nanpya”, tells of a very simple and unpretentious man. There was also the story of his attending a formal luncheon in the war years with a tattered vest under his uniform which, at the host’s urging, he had to remove due to the oppressive summer heat. He did not feel the least embarrassed in his tattered vest.
Bogyoke was willing to forgo even his personal prestige if it served the common cause. In 1946, as the undisputed supreme leader of Myanmar, he had every right to summon U Saw, no longer a major political figure, for talks concerning Myanmar’s struggle for independence. Instead, to promote better rapport, he chose to go to U Saw’s house where U Saw, in his own petty way, purposely made Bogyoke wait for some time. Bogyoke did not feel the least slighted or offended because he had a larger goal in mind — that of united struggle for independence.
Bogyoke Aung San spoke or acted in a forthright way. The following anecdote, recounted by Thakhin Tin Maung (of Kyone-ma-ngay), was revealing in this respect. It was in early 1940 that Bogyoke (then Thakhin Aung San) met Sir Stafford Cripps, a Labour leader, who was on a short visit to Myanmar. At one point, Thakhin Aung San was expounding Myanmar’s right to the use of force in trying to regain her freedom. He said that supposing the fountain pen in the breast pocket of Cripps’ coat had been the one taken away from him on a false pretext, first he would ask Cripps to give it back to him. If Cripps refused, then what would he do? As he spoke, suddenly he snatched away the pen from Cripps’ coat pocket, thereby tearing apart the stylish pocket to the amazement of all those present. Thankin Aung San did not appear the least concerned as his point was thus forcefully made. And poor Cripps could only mutter, “Oh, dear Aung San, dear Aung San!”
Boygoke Aung San was not a totally political man as some like to characterize him. Bo Let Ya, a close comrade-in-arms, related an incident during their Thakhin days. Bogyoke’s mother, Daw Su, came from Natmauk to see her youngest and dearest son in Yangon. He appeared to be unconcerned and uncommunicative. Later, he sent her off at the railway station on her return to Natmauk. As the train started, suddenly he knelt down on the platform and gave the shikhoe (homage gesture) towards his mother on the departing train. That incident succinctly tells of a man who was only too human.
His honesty, his sincerity, and his forthrightness came out naturally and spontaneously whether he was addressing a mass meeting at Naythuyein Hall, or a gathering of leaders from the frontier areas at Panglong. His message for national unity and solidarity won the day, because he was not only a charismatic leader, but also a genuine patriot. His dedication to Myanmar’s freedom was total. His sole mission in life was that of achieving freedom for his motherland. In fact, he succeeded in this noble mission; though, sadly, he was not there to witness his crowning achievement. He was truly the architect of freedom for Modern Myanmar, hence the Founder of Modern Myanmar.
(First published in the 60th Anniversary Magazine of Geology Department of Mandalay University in November 2013. Now reprinted with the author’s permission. Author’s note in the original article is not included here as it was written expressly for that magazine.)