The Irrawaddy

70 Years On, the Struggle for Independence Goes On

The Myanmar national flag is hoisted during a ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of the country’s independence in Yangon in January 2017.

“Let us rejoice at the independence which has come to us today, the result of sacrifices undergone by us and those who preceded us in the years that have passed.”

Those are the words of Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaike, in his independence message on Jan. 4, 1948.

So began the story I wrote for the 60th anniversary of Myanmar’s independence in 2008. It went on…

What has the 60th anniversary of Burma’s independence brought in 2008? Did it bring freedom, prosperity and happiness? 

Sadly, little of the above can be found in the country today [2008]. Instead, we find more oppression, poverty and misery.  

On Independence Day, the then prime minister, U Nu said, “There is no room for disunity or discord — racial, communal, political or personal — and I now call upon all citizens of the Burma Union to unite and to labor without regard to self and in the interest of the country to which we all belong.”  

In contrast, a few months after Burma gained independence from nearly 100 years of British rule, civil war broke out between the government and communist and ethnic rebel groups. Since then, civil war has continued in the country.

About 10 years after independence, a bloody coup occurred that, in effect, cut off any real chance for freedom and prosperity. From then on, the military has had a firm grip on the reins of power.

In the past 60 years, Burma had opportunities to create a democracy with a good economy but failed. Instead, our country has devoted its energy to infighting and disagreement based on differing political ideologies.  

We have to speak honestly. Burma today has few things we can be proud of. Politics is a disgrace. Economics is a tragedy. Society itself is exhausted. Seemingly, everyone in the world knows something about Burma, but it’s mostly negative.

My story for the 60the anniversary of Independence Day went on from there. A decade has since passed. Today is the 70th anniversary of Independence Day. And the questions for this year are: What is different from 2008? And what does independence mean for Myanmar today?

The main difference is that Myanmar has an elected government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a former prisoner of the military regime. That means the military no longer has absolute power.

But some of the main challenges the country was facing 10 years ago remain challenges today: The civil war that started with independence has not ceased; The undemocratic Constitution drafted by the military regime will have its 10th anniversary this year; Thanks to the privileges that Constitution reserves for the military, the generals remain powerful political players by holding on to key government ministries, 25 percent of the seats in both the national and regional parliaments; The economy is still not good; Outdated and oppressive laws enacted by colonial Britain in the early 20th century are still being used to negative effect; And countless more problems knotted with the bad legacies of colonialism.

Moreover, the country has faced more and greater challenges. Take a look at every corner of Myanmar and you will see them. Some are the same old challenges, only now at alarming levels; the Rakhine conflict as an example, with hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees. Since the 1980s, when the military of the then socialist regime waged war with ethnic armed groups based along Myanmar’s frontiers with Thailand and China, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes for refugee camps in border areas.

All of those challenges have come from the pre- and post-independence eras. Myanmar society is chronically ill. The nationwide uprising of 1988 intended to fix them with people power, but it was crushed by the military regime.

That is why Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called the ’88 pro-democracy uprising Myanmar’s “second struggle for independence.”

The current struggle is much more delicate than the independence struggle under the leadership of independence hero General Aung San, the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been dealing with the ruling generals for decades and is dealing with them still to achieve a democracy that can guarantee unity, equality and prosperity — goals her own father was aiming for prior to independence.

The people of Myanmar still long for these ideals and believe that if Aung San had survived the country would have evolved along that path. However, since the 32-year-old Aung San was killed in 1947, Myanmar has been headless. The country has suffered from a crisis of leadership.

The people of Myanmar 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 from imperialism and achieve independence.

Now, seventy years later, his daughter is the de facto leader as state counselor, winning a mandate from a majority of voters in the 2015 general election. Certainly her goal is to achieve her father’s aspirations for the country – democracy, unity, equality and prosperity.

But the challenges she has been facing are different from her father’s. When Aung San led the independence struggle, his enemy was clear – imperialism. For Daw

Aung San Suu Kyi, the enemy is widespread and sometimes unclear – generally speaking, anyone who is against democracy and its principles.

While her father was the independence leader, she is seen as the democracy leader. Like her father, she has gained a mandate to lead the country to a genuine democracy. In her own words, she — with a majority of the people — is waging the second struggle of independence.

That struggle, to achieve the goals aimed for when Myanmar gained its independence 70 years ago, goes on.