RANGOON—At a park here in Burma’s biggest city, a standing bronze statue of the country’s national hero, Gen Aung San, rarely draws visitors on ordinary days.
But on Friday, hundreds of young people gathered at the statue to honor the late general and his comrades—who were gunned down by a political rival exactly 66 years ago—in an act of commemoration that would have been prohibited before the country’s quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011.
One of Burma’s most important holidays, Martyrs’ Day, is marked each year on July 19, but such public displays of celebration were long forbidden by the country’s former military rulers, who sought to discredit Aung San—the father of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi—and his contribution to Burmese society.
“July 19 is the day we lost our leaders, and since then our country has experienced great suffering,” said Thurein, a Rangoon-based activist from Generation Wave, one of 30 youth networks gathered at the statue.
“We are here to take a lesson from what happened to them,” he added.
Martyrs’ Day was commemorated with a state-level ceremony for the first time last year, a practice that was repeated again this year with Vice President Dr Sai Mauk Kham and other high officials in attendance. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper published an editorial on Friday entitled “Saluting Our Fallen Leaders,” while the front pages of other state-run dailies were filled with photographs of the fallen national heroes and an excerpt from Aung San’s 1947 speech to the public in Rangoon.
The annual holiday is a day for mourning in Burma, marking the anniversary of the assassination of Aung San and eight of his comrades in 1947, shortly before the country achieved independence from British rule the next year.
After the assassination, the Burmese government decreed that July 19 would become a national holiday, and for years thousands of Burmese would take the occasion to pay their respects at the fallen leaders’ mausoleum in Rangoon.
Following the 1988 popular uprising, the then-military junta downgraded the ceremony and declared that the mausoleum would be off-limits for ordinary people, fearing that a public gathering at the burial site would spark more unrest.
Thereafter, the only visible commemoration on July 19 was the state flag flying at half-mast. Children born after 1988 never heard a siren wail at 10:37 am, an old tradition to mark the exact time the leaders were assassinated.
But since reformist President Thein Sein took office two years ago, the decades-long Martyrs’ Day tradition seems to have been resurrected. The quasi-civilian government has also allowed some public tributes at the mausoleum, albeit with restrictions: No cell phones, cameras or bags of any kind were allowed at the site.
Since late morning on Friday, lines of people—including monks, schoolchildren and political party members—could be seen forming at the entrance of the mausoleum. When the clock struck 10:37, a siren blared from a public address system set up on the roof of a car near the park. Everyone in the vicinity bowed down for one minute in honor of the fallen leaders, while vehicles out on the roads honked their horns to mark the mournful moment.
A small number of people also gathered at the entrance of the Secretariat building, the site of the assassination, although they were not permitted to go inside.
Among the group was Yumon Kyaw, who said she and the others passed yellow and red roses to security guards at the door to put at a Buddhist shrine in a room inside where Aung San and his comrades were gunned down.
“We brought flowers here today, because our leaders died here,” she said.