General Aung San was rarely seen smiling in a photograph. Perhaps the only known photo of the architect of modern Burma caught in a moment of laughter was from a visit he made to Kachin State in the pre-independence era, when he was captured in a snapshot posing with six young Kachin women between discussions with ethnic leaders about the nation’s future departure from British rule.
Only one of those women is still alive today. The Irrawaddy tracked down 88-year-old Hkawn Raw Makawng, who now lives in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina. Surprised by the unexpected phone call, she happily retold her recollections of the man and the moment behind the photograph.
“It was taken by the roadside, near a place which is now Man Kein Basic Education High School, in 1946,” she said, remembering the visit Aung San made just a year before he was assassinated. He had traveled to Kachin State to meet with high-ranking ethnic delegates. She said the purpose of the summit was to drum up support for the independence movement and encourage unity across Burma’s myriad ethnic groups.
“The general came to say that Burmese people alone could not claim back independence, but that it could only be claimed by all of the ethnic groups in Burma,” said Hkawn Raw Makawng, who was part of a catering team, though she wasn’t at the meetings. She remembers that Sama Duwa Sin Wa Naung, Duwa Zaw Lun, Laban Ga Raung, Duwa Zaw rek, Den Ra Tan and Duwa Zaw La Thu were among the attendees.
The thing she remembered most vividly about the occasion was the moment just before the shutter clicked, etching in time an image of the general’s joy. She and five other Kachin women, dressed to the nines in intricate traditional attire, stood in a row behind the seated leader. She can be seen just behind his left shoulder, her face partially obscured.
“As we were posing for the photo, someone—perhaps his bodyguard—said to him: ‘General, Daw Khin Kyi would sulk if she knew you were posing for a picture with Kachin women,” she recalled. Khin Kyi was the late general’s wife.
“He began to laugh, and that’s when the photo was taken. We were happy at that time.”
Reporting contributed by Lin Thant.