Since the 32-year-old Aung San was killed in 1947, Myanmar has suffered from a crisis of leadership. The architect of national independence left a giant hole that no one has been able to fill over the past nearly 70 years.
Even now, as the country tries to scale back from the abyss after decades of military rule, it continues to struggle in the absence of strong and visionary leadership. Myanmar seriously needs another Aung San, but there is no one close to the widely revered general.
Myanmar people still remember him as a selfless leader with integrity, whose shrewd dealings with both the British and the Japanese in the mid-20th century helped Myanmar break free of imperialism and achieve independence.
Sixty-eight years since he was assassinated by a political rival, General Aung San remains an unrivaled political figure in modern Myanmar. As his centennial birthday approaches on Feb. 13, the country will embrace grand commemorative celebrations mainly organized by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and its leader, the General’s daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The martyred Aung San is regarded as the father of modern Myanmar and the founder of the Myanmar Army. He is lovingly called “Bogyoke,” meaning “General” in Myanmar language.
Aung San worked for unity, equality, democracy and prosperity in Myanmar—goals that are yet to be fulfilled. Myanmar people still long for these ideals and believe that if the General had survived, the country would have evolved along this path.
His immediate successor, U Nu, the most senior member of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League and Myanmar’s first prime minister after the country gained independence on Jan. 4, 1948, failed to build unity with the various ethnic groups. A coup was launched in 1962 and the military has since ruled, in various guises, without pause.
In January 1946, General Aung San said in a public speech that “No man, however great, can alone set the wheels of history in motion, unless he has the active support and co-operation of a whole people. No doubt individuals have played brilliant roles in history, but then it is evident that history is not made by a few individuals only.”
This reflected the value he placed on the participation of individual citizens in the building of the country. But it was an ideal that failed to materialize. In Myanmar since independence, only a handful of individuals “made” history—the military leaders that consistently ruled the country without the consent of ordinary citizens. When individuals strived to overturn the military’s influence, they were systematically defeated. Myanmar became a failed state.
Those new generations that fought for democracy were in fact struggling to achieve General Aung San’s own aspirations. Even now, whenever protestors stage demonstrations, images of the General are frequently held aloft. When demonstrations were crushed, so too were General Aung San’s photos scattered across the streets.
Aung San once said, “I am never relieved when it comes to Burma’s fate. Even in my dreams, I cry and am angry for my country as it is not independent.” If he were still alive today to witness the oppression and disunity in Myanmar, he would undoubtedly shed even more tears.
Aung San urged politicians to work for unity among all citizens, including ethnic nationalities. Otherwise, the General said, Myanmar “won’t be able to fully enjoy the essence of independence.”
He was absolutely right. Aung San always underscored the importance of unity and this led to the signing of the Panglong Agreement that enshrined equal rights and political autonomy for ethnic nationalities in 1947. But successive leaders failed to build on this legacy and Myanmar descended into civil war.
Aung San said, “When we build an independent Burma, ethnic people and Bamar [Burman] must have equality without discrimination.” One of his favorite quotes, applicable for all ethnic people, was: “If Bamar get one kyat, Shan and Kachin must get one kyat respectively.”
The military leaders who ruled the country with an iron fist after 1962 failed to honor Aung San’s pledge. They undercut unity, not only with ethnic people, but also pro-democracy groups and all those who spoke out against oppression.
Aung San may be long dead but the aspirations he articulated are still as relevant as ever. If Myanmar is to realize the General’s hopes—of peace, democracy and prosperity—current leaders must create an atmosphere of collaboration with all stakeholders, including opposition parties and ethnic groups.
To work towards this, all that’s needed is the genuine political will. Otherwise the country will remain in crisis.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of The Irrawaddy English edition. This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.