Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! July 19 is Myanmar’s historic Martyrs’ Day and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the day when nine martyrs including independence hero Gen Aung San were assassinated. It is said that Gen Aung San chose his cabinet and colleagues based on their capacity, capability, expertise, experience and virtue. On the occasion of Martyrs’ Day, I’ve invited two grandsons of martyrs U Ba Win and U Razak to discuss how exemplary those leaders were. Ko Khaing Win, the grandson of U Ba Win, who was the elder brother of Gen Aung San, and Dr. Myat Htoo Razak, the grandson of U Razak, join me for this discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
Ko Khaing Win, it is said that those leaders of the past had vision and capability. But before talking about their characteristics, can you tell me about your childhood memories and the relations between Gen Aung San and your grandfather, according to your elders?
Khaing Win: What I remember is my grandfather teaching Gen Aung San. My grandfather was 14 years older than him, so he was like a big brother or father figure to him.
He taught his two brothers, Gen Aung San and U Aung Than, in Yenangyaung Township, where he was a schoolteacher at the time. Although they were brothers, my grandfather was a strict teacher. He taught them English and asked them to read English newspapers and write down what they read every morning.
KZM: Ko Myat Htoo, we heard that Gen Aung San chose U Razak [as a cabinet member] on his merit. He was a local leader in Mandalay and had a range of experience, including serving as the headmaster of National High School. What impression did he leave you with?
Myat Htoo: As his grandson, I’ve known him largely through his books and speeches. My grandmother didn’t talk much about him because it made her sad. But I can imagine how much he was respected, especially when I go to Mandalay. I came to understand more about my grandfather after I read the book Students’ Account of Their Teacher U Razak by the Mandalay Association. He was a strong patriot and decided to fight for independence and to improve the country by promoting education and patriotism. He told his students that weapons alone would not defeat the British and that independence must be claimed in meeting rooms. Like Saya U Ba Win, he was a teacher who promoted patriotism. At the same time, he not only taught from school textbooks but also about social and moral obligations. Looking at the actions of his students, I can imagine the kind of teacher my grandfather was. I respect him as a leader in the country rather than as my grandfather.
KZM: It is notable that both U Ba Win and U Razak were teachers. U Ba Win also served as the trade minister and one of his biographies said that as businessmen approached ministers to get permits, U Ba Win never looked at the names of the applicants seeking business licenses. He was concerned that he would be biased in favor of his friends. It seems like honesty was an important virtue at that time. What more do you know about your grandfather?
KW: Yes, as Ko Kyaw Zwa has said, my grandmother told me that merchants approached him after he became the trade minister. But before that, he told his wife not to interfere with his job and made it clear that he would not receive any of his students if they came to visit him for business purposes. My grandmother told me that one of his students, who was a businessman, came with our family when we moved from Yenangyaung to Yangon, despite my grandfather’s refusal. He was a regular guest at our house in Yenangyaung and my grandmother and family members didn’t want to upset him, so they let him go along. My grandfather was in the front car and realized that he had joined them after they were already on the way. He railed at him and bluntly told him to go back to Yenangyaung. He was a leader who was not afraid to offend, and who did not take personal ties into consideration when it came to the interests of the country.
KZM: They were very disciplined. It seems like all of the ex-ministers from previous eras could learn from them regarding corruption. Ko Myat Htoo, Gen Aung San didn’t accept religious meddling in politics. Society was largely secular and there were no radical religious views. U Razak was a Muslim, but he was portrayed as a leader in the community and the country. There were also Christians among the assassinated martyrs. What is your assessment of those leaders in that regard, as we are witnessing radical religious movements 70 years after their assassination? What should we take from them?
MH: They focused on independence and the development of the country. In the nation-building process, they chose people who could benefit the country regardless of race, religion or faith. They, especially U Razak, had close ties with Buddhist monks in Mandalay. He learned Pali and taught the monks as well. At the same time, he maintained friendly ties with Muslims and Christians without discrimination. His mother, Daw Nyein Hla, was a Buddhist and all of his siblings were Buddhists. He said he believed in Islam because his Islamic father asked him to do so, and he wanted Muslims to be united. But according to his books, he viewed state affairs as the top priority before religion. He was a visionary leader in that regard. Now, religious extremism is high not only in Myanmar but around the world. Considering this, it is clear that U Razak was a man who could focus on state affairs rather than religion. My personal view is that if those leaders were alive today, they would certainly find ways to prevent extremism.
KZM: It is fair to say that Myanmar’s strong and visionary leadership was lost after their assassination. So, people always long for them. There is talk that Myanmar’s history would have been different if they had not been assassinated. We have undergone many dark eras. Ko Khaing Win, what do you think Myanmar would be like today if those leaders had not died?
KW: Many have imagined how Myanmar would be doing if they were alive. They wonder if Myanmar would be like Singapore. Some compare Gen Aung San with Lee Kuan Yew, saying that he was a brave, decisive, and selfless leader, and that his colleagues were also far-sighted. Development of a country depends greatly on leadership. It is critical. When a country is rich, it might not need good leadership, but for developing countries, good leadership is necessary.
KZM: Yes, it is especially true for a country that is at a crossroads. Please continue.
KW: It is critical that those holding political power have vision. I believe the country will improve when it has many leaders who consider the future of the country from various aspects rather than focusing on their electoral victories.
KZM: Yes, it will also depend on how good their economic and foreign policies are, aside from the separation of religion and politics. It is important that they have the right policies as they navigate the 50 million people on the ship that is Myanmar. Ko Myat Htoo, what should leaders, including military leaders—as Gen Aung San founded the military—learn from the martyrs for the sake of the people and the country?
MH: Leaders need to consider the interests of the people and the future of the country. When we say the vision of the leaders, it is not only about their vision. The whole country needs to share that vision. When we talk about martyrs, we usually refer to those nine martyrs, but more than 30 million people made sacrifices [to regain independence]. The people recognize those nine martyrs among many others. There were other leaders like Pyawbwe U Mya who didn’t die, although they were at the cabinet meeting, and therefore, were not recognized as martyrs. In rebuilding the state, there are many leaders who go unrecognized. In the military, there may be military leaders who are not popular, but who want to transform the army into people’s army. I want leaders in the economic, education, legislation, health and development sectors to work together to find ways to improve the country.
KZM: Ko Khaing Win, Ko Myat Htoo, thank you for sharing!