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Preserving Indian Heritage in Myanmar

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The Pulse

Preserving Indian Heritage in Myanmar

Yangon was once a center for India’s independence struggle. Can the heritage be preserved?

Preserving Indian Heritage in Myanmar
Credit: Yangon via milosk50 /

As Myanmar evolves from a military junta to a quasi-democracy, it has begun to attract heavy real estate investment from the West. For adjacent northeast India, that should be good news.

Unfortunately, though, the newly investment-friendly atmosphere in Yangon raises some questions. Specifically what is to become of the city’s historic buildings, and more precisely those buildings related to India’s freedom movement in that city? Will the headquarters of the Indian National Army (known as Azad Hind Fauj in Hindi) be preserved?

Formed by Indian nationalists during World War II in 1942 with the motto of Ittehad, Itmad aur Qurbani (Unity, Faith and Sacrifice), the Indian National Army (INA) comprised over 40,000 soldiers, who fought valiantly against the British imperialist forces. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose became leader of the INA in 1943 and undertook a groundbreaking march towards Indian territories from Burmese soil with the aim of  achieving Indian independence.

When your correspondent visited Yangon in 2005, the entire country was under the iron-fisted rule of Senior General Than Shwe. Yangon residents were too scared to talk about democracy and elections, or even saying out loud the name of pro-democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta had thousands of spies on the streets of Yangon, checking to see who was talking about Suu Kyi, then under house arrest.

In fact, Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, was a close friend of Netaji, the supreme commander of the INA. That friendship was reflected in cordial relationship between the soldiers of the INA and their counterparts in the Burmese National Army (BNA).

Frightened that daughter Suu Kyi could be a catalyst for change in Myanmar, the military rulers remained reluctant to honor their independence hero, who was assassinated just days before the country achieved its independence. The reluctance to speak of Suu Kyi thus had indirect implications for the INA.

So when your correspondent tried to find the exact location and present state of the INA building in Yangon, his ever smiling hotel manager became confused. The local residents near the splendid railway station in downtown Yangon, where the INA was believed to have been headquartered, were afraid to speak about the building. They knew little Hindi or English and even less about the building. Many simply avoided questions with a pale smile on their faces.

Media reports suggest that some non-governmental organizations, including the Yangon Heritage Trust, are trying to keep Yangon’s historic buildings from the clutches of land-grabbers. But in the absence of any legal protections, the trust has found it very difficult to convince the government, which is now based in Naypyidaw.

The local media, although slowly emerging from the grip of government censorship (more or less), still prefers to remain silent about any historic monuments related to INA or India’s freedom movement. And even today, no Indian newspapers or satellite news channels have correspondents permanently stationed in Yangon. So this writer at least has not been able to find anyone to tell him whether the INA building still exists or if it has already been grabbed by the military to sell to real-estate developers.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is visiting Myanmar today to attend the BIMSTEC summit in Naypyidaw. Perhaps he might ask for the assistance of President Thein Sein in preserving the legacy of India’s fight for independence.

The author is a northeast India-based journalist and writes about South & Southeast Asian affairs.