July 19 marks the 70th anniversary of Martyr’s Day in Myanmar, the day when the revered independence hero General Aung San and several members of his cabinet were gunned down by political rivals in the middle of their plans for decolonization.
The lead up to this date has been accompanied by several months of nation-wide statue construction, the unveiling of new statues and the extensive renovation of older ones, a renaissance in the memorialization of the father of independent Myanmar and of the effective leader of the country, his daughter State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
The largest Aung San statue, a 13-foot high bronze of the general seated in full uniform, was unveiled in Mandalay’s Mandalar Tagon park in June. Other statues have him depicted on horseback in Japanese style uniform, standing and reaching out his hand, in a greatcoat for his visit to London to secure then known as Burma’s independence.
Most of the statues are based on iconic photos of the charismatic figure, affectionately known as “Bogyoke”, who was only 32 years old when he was assassinated.
In Yangon’s suburb of North Okkalapa’s Kanthaya Park, the renovation of a 1989 statue of the general on horseback by celebrated sculptor Lwin Maung was financed by a collective called the Bogkyoke (General) Lovers Group, including prominent activist and former political prisoner Min Ko Naing of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group.
But as if to demonstrate the growing political divisions of modern Myanmar, as well as the contested legacy of Aung San, there are two statues being finished in neighboring South Okkalapa. One is championed by the sitting national parliamentarian Saw Naing; the other by prominent political activist Ko Ko Gyi, another leader of the 88 Generation and prominent former political prisoner.
Both statues will be unveiled on Wednesday at opposite ends of the park. The rivalry could partly be explained by residual bitterness of the pre-selection of candidates for the 2015 election, with the now ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) reneging on promises to choose Ko Ko Gyi as its candidate for the constituency, and instead running with Saw Naing, who had previously been an independent candidate.
Not even the legacy of Aung San is free from the widespread sense of unease over the faltering democratic transition, disappointment with Suu Kyi’s patrician and distant style of governance, and the continuing, menacing presence of the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, in national politics.
One Myanmar cartoonist captured the symbolism of the statue campaign by depicting a collection of various styled statues in a park, with two figures observing that the country doesn’t need more statues of Aung San but rather needs more leaders to work like Aung San.
The genuine populist renaissance of Aung San is a recent phenomenon which began during the previous quasi-civilian Thein Sein administration, coming after decades of military rule in which his legacy was downgraded by a new generation of military leaders who rejected Aung San’s pursuit of peaceful inclusiveness.
The annual July 19 ceremony at the Martyr’s Day Mausoleum in Yangon, just north of the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, was opened to the public several years ago. Last year, the sprawling and crumbling Secretariat Building in downtown where the cabinet was gunned down was open to visitors, with tens of thousands of people touring through on the day.
At the same time, books on the general and his legacy have multiplied in recent years. A lavish biopic was also planned, spearheaded by the famous comedian and former political prisoner Zargana, but the film has yet to be produced.
The renaissance of the general comes after decades of what the anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman called “Aung San amnesia” by previous ruling military juntas, namely the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
During the 1990’s, the independence hero’s image was removed from all Myanmar currency (including the older notes still in circulation such as the 15, 45 and 90 Kyat notes) along with other anti-colonial heroes such as Hsaya San.
They were replaced with the chinthe, or Buddhist temple guardian lion, which also happened to be the symbol of the newly formed Union Solidarity and Development Association, a mass membership “social welfare” organization that eventually grew to over 30 million nominal members and was the precursor of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which ruled under Thein Sein from 2011-2016.
During the 1990s, the SLORC and SPDC pursued a process Houtman called “Myanmarfication”, or the use of Burman-Buddhist imagery around the country, which led to widespread ethnic distrust.
Aung San statue nationalism, designed to construct new statues in every state and region in Myanmar and centrally directed by the NLD through local donations, is in some areas perceived as a resurgent ‘Burmanization’ of using the general’s imagery as a unifying symbol.
Two statues erected in Kachin State on February 13, Aung San’s birthday, one in the state capital Myitkyina and the second in the town of Bhamo, were roundly criticized by Kachin political leaders.
Since 2011 Kachin State has been rocked by resumed civil war, resulting in over 80,000 internally displaced civilians who have fled heavy fighting with regular use of air strikes and heavy artillery. Many Kachin perceived the statues as ill-timed and insensitive, especially as Bhamo is virtually a besieged town due to Myanmar army travel restrictions and fighting close by.
The commodification of Aung San’s legacy and the political tone-deafness of the NLD was also on display over the recent bridge naming imbroglio in the Mon State capital of Mawlamyine.
The huge bridge over the Salween River linking the mainland with Chaungzone on Bilu Kyun, or Ogre Island, was originally christened the General Aung San Bridge, a decision made in the capital Naypyitaw.
Locals reacted with umbrage and major protests were staged. The government has refused to bow to local sensitivities, however, and the original name has been retained.
Aung San’s political legacy has also come in for significant revisionist reassessment. Some ethnic political leaders have long cast the 1947 Panglong Agreement between Aung San and a handful of ethnic leaders as the touchstone of future betrayal by the Myanmar military state of ethnic nationalities, leading to nearly 70 years of civil war.
Yet the original Panglong Agreement was not the blueprint for ethnic emancipation it has often been cast as. Rather, it was a preliminary event to keep discussing ethnic aspirations, and only a handful of ethnic nationality leaders were present.
As American scholar Matthew Walton has written, the “myths of Panglong” have prevailed for decades, frustrating the pursuit of a contemporary, organic and inclusive national identity that doesn’t relegate many ethnic communities as inferior to the majority Burmans.
Suu Kyi has dubbed her government’s peace process efforts since taking power in March 2016 as Panglong 21st Century, an attempt to harness the symbolism of the 1947 agreement.
But her government’s efforts have barely diverged from the hardline approach of the Tatmadaw, who hardened their rhetoric against ethnic armed organizations that have refused to sign a nationwide peace accord. At the same time, the military has dramatically escalated their attacks in Kachin State and against rebel groups in Northern Shan State.
The 70th anniversary of Aung San’s assassination will demonstrate how the general’s positive symbolism still resonates with a contemporary Burmese political culture that is nostalgic for inclusive, progressive and principled leadership.
But it also shows how the many political cleavages Aung San identified in 1947 on the eve of freedom from British colonial rule remain, and that the divisions along ethnic lines and their resultant bitterness continue to define the nation’s politics.
Clearly, it will take more than a statue to compel the diverse people of Myanmar to construct a new identity based on tolerance and inclusivity.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst