Ethnic Issues

On Martyrs Day, One Man’s Tale of Tragedy Revisited

By Kyaw Phyo Tha & Yen Saning 19 July 2015

RANGOON — Though it happened more than six decades ago, Nai Ngwe Thein still remembers what he saw on that rainy Saturday.

Now 93 years old, the ethnic Mon leader of the Mon National Party is one of probably only a few people alive today to have witnessed the immediate aftermath of a tragedy that shocked Burma to its core on July 19, 1947.

When the door to a room on the second floor of the Rangoon Secretariat complex’s west wing was closed for a cabinet meeting on the morning of that day, Nai Ngwe Thein and a friend headed to a nearby teashop. He was 24 years old at the time, working as a clerk at the Secretariat after joining the Burma Defense Army to fight against the Japanese fascists in 1945.

“[At 10:37 am], we heard a series of ‘pops.’ We ran up to the room to see what happened,” he said of the event, nearly 70 years later. What he had heard that morning was gunfire, and when it stopped Burma’s national hero, Gen. Aung San, and eight of his comrades were dead, assassinated in cold blood by a political rival.

“On our way up to the room, I saw Ko Htwe, the body guard of the assassinated Education Minister U Razak, lying on the steps with bullet wounds. Outside the meeting room, Sao San Tun, the minister of hill regions, was wounded on the floor and shouted to us, ‘Go and check on General Aung San!’”

When Nai Ngwe Thein entered the room, the scene was alarming. The smell of gunpowder lingered in an air hazy with the visual manifestation of a recent, unrelenting burst of tommy gun fire.

“General Aung San was shot dead in his chair. Some others were lying on the floor dying or wounded. It was very sad to see,” Nai Ngwe Thein recalled just a few days before the 68th anniversary of the assassination.

For Burmese people, Aung San and July 19 are inseparable. Locally known as “Martyrs’ Day,” the date has been designated a “national day of mourning” to honor the man who won independence from the British and his fallen comrades.

Every year on July 19, thousands of people make a beeline to the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon to pay their respects to the deceased leaders. A visit to his former home, now converted into a museum, is also part of the 68-year-old tradition.

Nai Ngwe Thein remembers Aung San, the father of the dissident-turned-parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi, as an “outspoken but straightforward person.”

He joined the general’s Burma Defense Army as a guerrilla soldier in 1945 to fight against the Japanese occupation of the country. After the Japanese surrender, when the British sought to incorporate his forces into the regular army, Aung San held key members back, forming the Pyithu Yebaw, or People’s Volunteer Organization (PVO), a private political army designed to take the place of his Burma National Army, the post-occupation incarnation of the Burma Defense Army.

When the organization was formed, Nai Ngwe Thein was a central committee member as well as an officer-in-charge for Pyithu Yebaw weekly, a PVO publication lobbying for Burmese independence. When the paper eventually folded, Aung San assigned him to do clerical work at the Secretariat.

Since the assassination, Nai Ngwe Thein has devoted his life to politics, taking up the demands of Burma’s ethnic minorities for self-determination and equality in the face of successive Bamar-dominated governments that have, in ways large and small, denied them these basic rights.

Indeed, for many, Aung San—who had promised to work with and respect all of Burma’s people—was the very embodiment of an ethnic reconciliation that has proven elusive since his death.

Today, Nai Ngwe Thein serves as chairman of the Mon National Party, perhaps the final stop on a political career that began in 1938 as a student activist involved in the resistance movement to British colonial rule. Post-independence, as ethnic minorities’ relationship with the Bamar-dominated government soured, he positioned himself at the forefront of the Mon people’s struggle for self-determination.

Over the years he has found himself alternatively cooperating with and antagonizing the various civilian and military governments that have ruled Burma since independence, helping lead the takeover of Moulmein by Mon and Karen rebels in 1948, only to unsuccessfully run for Parliament 12 years later. Under the military junta led by Gen. Ne Win and his successor Snr-Gen Than Shwe, he spent three stints in jail for his political activism, but also ran for elected office once more and worked with the government to demarcate Mon State in the 1970s.

His last failed attempt to win voters over came as vice chairman of the Mon National Democratic Front in 1990, when the party won five seats in an election that was ultimately annulled after the military government refused to accept the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory.

Though it boycotted the 2010 general election, the Mon National Party, formerly the Mon National Democratic Front, reregistered in 2012, and plans to contest Burma’s landmark general election later this year.

Nonetheless, these days it would be safe to describe Nai Ngwe Thein, who is not running for Parliament this year, as skeptical of the political reform process initiated by President Thein Sein.

“Winning in the election doesn’t mean anything,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We cannot change the 2008 Constitution in the Parliament. Whatever people are claiming is nonsense. Take a look at the vote in the recent Parliament.”

But still it is clear that Aung San’s legacy continues to motivate the Mon leader.

“When we fight for democracy, we need to work for what the General had planned, for equality for the ethnics, to have unity among us,” he said.

Like many, the 93-year-old believes Burma’s fractious politics and decades-long civil war might have been avoided, had Aung San’s term of leadership not come abruptly to an end on that fateful morning in 1947.

“He accepted negotiation when differences came up, as he was not a tricky person,” he said.

Asked if he sees similarities between the national hero and his daughter Suu Kyi, Nai Ngwe Thein offers a surprisingly frank “no.”

“What makes him different from his daughter is he never worked alone and always listened to other people’s advice.”