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Honoring Those Who Fought For Freedom
by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

This month will mark Burma's Golden anniversary of her independence from British colonial rule. In a letter published by the Mainichi Daily in Japan, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi takes stock of this fifty year period, noting the sobering irony that Burma's citizens enjoyed more freedoms under colonialism than they do under the present regime.

(source January 12, 1998 Mainichi Daily News)

The nature of time is incomprehensible. Days that creeped and months that crawled telescope into years that seem to fly past. Burma is a land of soothsayers. Campaigning in the Irrawaddy division in 1989, I met a young doctor who told me anxiously that after careful astrological calculation, local Buddhist monks had come to the conclusion that nine years would pass before the movement for democracy was crowned with victory. "Nine years," he said with furrowed brow, "Can we bear it for so long?" "Why not?" I replied absently, wondering about the scientifically calculable probability rate of astrological predictions with one part of my mind while the other tried to work out the implications of a decade of struggle. At that time, a decade stretched out mistily into the unforeseeable future; but now that almost the whole of it has been left behind, it has shrunk to negligible proportions.

While 10 years seen in retrospect do not seem much, 50 years in retrospect, perhaps because it is almost a lifetime for me, or perhaps because it constitutes a historic phase, take on a "forever" aspect. On the fourth of January, 1998, Burma will be commemorating the golden anniversary of her independence. I cannot remember a time when my country was not a sovereign independent nation, just as I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of our struggle for independence. I grew up on tales of the exploits of the Rangoon University Students' Union, the "We Burmese" association, the war, the resistance movement, the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), the general boycott that brought the colonial government to its knees, the negotiations with the British Labour government, and the Panglong accord between the Burmese and the other ethnic nationalities. These tales were illustrated by photographs of my father as the young commander of the Burma Independence Army, as War Minister (by that time my mother and brothers had begun to feature as well), speaking at public rallies after the war as the leader of the AFPFL, wrapped in an oversized greatcoat during his trip to London for talks with the British government, and adorned with Kachin turban and sword around the time of the Panglong agreement. The story of the Burmese independence movement was intertwined with that of my father's life. Together with stories about the independence movement and my father, I heard discussions about the latest "insurgent situation." It seemed then that rebellions and civil strife were part and parcel of nationhood. There were newspaper articles about military operations and news photographs of "liberated" villages. Arguments raged over the efforts of the AFPFL government to negotiate peace. At one time the government made an offer of amnesty and daily we heard on the radio songs meant to lure insurgents back into the "legal fold." The popular term was "coming back into the light" and we children became adept at chanting the slogan, "Don't stare vacantly, comrade! Don't be lost in thought, comrade! Come back into the light, comrade, comrade!" It was something of a joke. A play written by Prime Minister U Nu in which communist insurgents featured as the baddies was part of our school syllabus and we had to memorize some of the politically crucial dialogue. Later a film was made of the play starring a couple of military officers who later left the army to become professional actors. It all seemed a part of normal life in Burma. Our regular visitors included a number of passionate politicians, not all of whom supported the same causes, so that if their visits coincided there would be some colorful exchanges. I understood roughly that the communists and socialists were not too fond of one another, that both groups had many sympathizers, but also that there were many who loathed both, condemning them either as fanatics, as dacoits or as troublemakers. I understood too that the fighting taking place in the jungles outside Rangoon was an extension of the politics raging in the capital even though I had never heard of Clauswitz. There were Red Flag Communist insurgents and White Flag Communists and the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO). There were also the "White Comrades." I was politically sophisticated enough to understand that they were quite apart from the White Communists with whom they sometimes entered into temporary alliances but it was not until I was 8 or 9 that I really managed to sort out who they were and why they had taken up arms against the government. My somewhat biased informant was a young woman who had "come back into the light" after "taking refuge in the jungles" for several years as an adherent of the White Comrades group.

Those were the days when parliamentary democracy was practiced in Burma. Undeniably there were flaws in the system but equally undeniably, the people felt free. They could embark confidently on political discussions without peering around to make sure there were no informers lurking in the background. Newspaper articles criticizing the government were read aloud in tea shops to the vociferous satisfaction of the audience. The family of a Karen friend who had joined the insurgents came and went freely. Neither they nor we felt under any threat when we were together; the government did not believe in persecuting family and friends for the political beliefs of one individual. That was just as well, as most people seemed to know or be related to somebody who belonged to some armed rebel group. Looking back, there is an almost golden glow to that era of parliamentary democracy in spite of the insurgencies. The judiciary was independent, the press was unmuzzled and elections took place regularly. We could choose our own government, we could shout at it, and we could throw it out with the power of our vote.

Gray seems to be the color most often associated the socialism of the non-democratic brand. The color actually favored by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), scion of the military revolutionary council that assumed power in 1962, was blue, and a rather pretty blue at that, but the years of BSPP rule in Burma definitely appear monochrome and dull. When the people of Burma eventually erupted in frustration in 1988 after the drab years, angry greens and reds became the key colors: the jungle green of the army and the grass green of its civilian arm, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the red of the flag (stamped with a white star and a yellow fighting peacock) of the National League for Democracy. The spectrum of Burma's first 50 years of independence is not soothing. And we are beginning the second part of our independence century with political and economic woes. "Where have all our wonderful ideals gone?" Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote in bewilderment as he struggled with the problems of post-independence India. When nation building is accompanied by internecine fights it can be so much more corrosive than any revolutionary war of independence. Our young people of today listen wistfully to accounts of the exploits of the student unions of their grandfathers' day. It is astounding to think that the colonial government allowed unions to be formed and permitted demonstration marches and rallies and even tolerated the burning of the Union Jack and demands for the British governor to "go back home." True, in a demonstration organized by students, one of them was struck down by a mounted policeman and later died of his wounds. However, there was a proper official enquiry into his death and students and politicians were allowed to organize his funeral with due honor. This is in glaring contrast to the situation today: students are not allowed to organize unions and universities have been shut since the student demonstrations of December 1996. Political parties too were able to operate more freely under colonial rule. They freely recruited members, organized and reorganized their various committees, campaigned throughout the country, held public meetings and openly discussed ways and means of getting rid of the alien government. Of course, numbers of politicians were arrested and imprisoned but the lot of a political prisoner was not such an unhappy one. They were fed and treated well and allowed to organize various activities within the prison, including classes on political subjects. Many felt they had graduated in politics during their term of imprisonment. After British administration was re-established at the end of the war, the AFPFL went into party work full swing, carrying the public with them in the sweep of pre-independence elections enthusiasm. And when the party won, their victory was not swept aside and ignored, it was duly recognized. Those were simpler days.

What, some might question, is the point of celebrating the 50th anniversary of our independence when the people of Burma are so patently lacking in the basic freedoms -- freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom from unlawful restraint? The NLD will be commemorating the golden anniversary with all due honor because we want to acknowledge our debt of gratitude to those who fought for independence in the hope and belief that self-government would mean better and more just government. If their hopes have not been realized, it is not their fault but that of those to whom fell the task of preserving independence and making it truly meaningful. As we celebrate on Jan. 4 with a Burmese orchestra, an electronic band, traditional games such as the climbing of a greased pole and a play (political in content of course), we shall be renewing our resolve to make the sacrifices of those who fought for independence really worthwhile.

China Informed

a news service focused on China, Taiwan and Hong Kong
©1997 Matthew Sinclair-Day
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