RANGOON — Thousands of people descended on the Secretariat in Rangoon on Sunday, taking advantage of a rare opening of the historical complex to the public in commemoration of Martyrs’ Day.
The building is intimately tied to July 19, a date when, in 1947, Burma’s independence hero Gen. Aung San and eight of his colleagues were gunned down by a political rival in one of the building’s second-floor rooms.
On Sunday, visitors were barred from entering that room by padlocks, but were able to get a glimpse inside through its doors’ windows. A Buddhist shrine, some paintings and an oddly out of place air conditioning unit today occupy the space where the general was assassinated nearly 70 years ago.
With no official signage to inform visitors about the room or its historical significance, one man on Sunday read aloud an excerpt from a Martyrs’ Day supplement of the Burmese-language Eleven Daily newspaper, describing how the assassination unfolded to a crowd gathered outside the room.
A group of university students also drew the attention of a curious public, with a handful of young people bearing flags with the fighting peacock—historically a symbol of student unions—gathering in the courtyard below the room to salute the fallen.
“Because today is Martyrs’ Day … we saluted at Bogyoke [General] Statue at 10:37 am,” said Min Lwin Oo, the secretary of Maritime University’s student union, referring to the exact minute that Aung San was killed 68 years ago. “We came here to salute as a ceremony of mourning and remembrance.”
Martyrs’ Day commemorations were downplayed for years by Burma’s former military regime. The current quasi-civilian government has increasingly embraced the day, however, and this year did so to an unprecedented degree, running interviews in state media with the martyrs’ surviving family members, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in the days leading up to July 19.
Suu Kyi, the chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), is the daughter of Aung San.
State-run dailies Kyemon and Myanma Alinn reported that a ceremony at the Martyrs Mausoleum in Rangoon was attended by Vice President Dr. Sai Mauk Kham and Burma’s two parliamentary speakers, Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint, as well as Supreme Court Chief Justice Tun Tun Oo and other senior officials. Family members of the deceased leaders also attended, including Suu Kyi.
The national day of mourning sees thousands of people make a beeline to the mausoleum in Rangoon to pay their respects. A visit to Aung San’s former home, now converted into a museum, is also part of the 68-year-old tradition. Thousands of people visit the museum every year.
Since 2008, the Yangon City Development Committee has arranged a low-key Martyrs’ Day ceremony, and until 2011 the city’s mayor was the most senior government figure to attend the event.
This year, President Thein Sein also marked Martyrs’ Day by making a donation to monks in Naypyidaw in a ceremony attended by commander in chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Union ministers and other government officials.
Back in Rangoon, Lae Lae Win was fortunate on Sunday to be visiting her son when the Secretariat’s gates were unlocked.
“Due to their efforts, we now can be independent. … I am sad and feel sorry for our national leaders’ assassination,” the 50-year-old from Irrawaddy Division told The Irrawaddy. “I also wanted to know how this place, the place of the assassination, has been kept. I am so glad that the assassination room was kept well as a prayer room, showing that the leaders were well respected.”
Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, founder of Phan Tee Eain (Creative House), a civil society organization focusing on women’s empowerment, took the occasion of her visit to the Secretariat to reflect on the work still to be done to fulfill Aung San’s vision of a free and prosperous Burma.
“I am glad to look around the place, but it’s suffocating,” she said. “Bogyoke Aung San was able to gain independence for our country within a few years, but look at the situation now; we are still struggling and not free. We haven’t got real independence yet.”
The Secretariat has made headlines on at least two occasions over the last year, first when US President Barack Obama toured the complex as part of his trip to Burma for an Asean summit in November 2014, and again five months later when a group of well-connected socialites held a birthday gathering on the grounds.
The Anawmar Art Group has been awarded a tender to renovate the moldering complex, a colossal Victorian-era architectural gem that has suffered from decades of neglect. On Sunday, however, there was little to indicate that restoration of the Secretariat had begun. The Anawmar Art Group has said it intends to turn at least part of the complex into an art gallery and museum.
Following her morning visit to the Martyrs Mausoleum, the NLD’s Suu Kyi held a press conference at the party’s Rangoon headquarters, where she took to politicking ahead of a general election due in November.
Suu Kyi said that mourners wishing to show their gratitude for Aung San could do so at the ballot box later this year, by voting for the NLD.
“To protect all citizens’ rights, the NLD must win 100 percent [of the vote],” she said.
Martyrs’ Day commemorations were also marked in the capital Naypyidaw and other cities across Burma’s 14 states and divisions.