Visitors to Yangon, Myanmar will quickly find that one name carries more weight than any other: Aung San. Cutting west to east across the city is Aung San Road. Downtown, there’s Aung San Market, a sprawling space with merchants hawking everything from fresh vegetables to jade trinkets. If you want to top your day off with a Myanmar National League soccer game, try Aung San Stadium.
Major General Aung San is revered by Myanmar’s Bamar majority as the Bamar nationalist leader who guided the country from British colony to independent state after World War II. Some of that sentiment, like the affection Americans have for John F. Kennedy or the veneration that Israelis share for Yitzhak Rabin, are rooted in a life cut tragically short by an assassin’s bullet. In fact, it was 70 years ago this week, as Aung San presided over a meeting of his Executive Council, that an armed gang led by a rival politician stormed into the building and killed Aung San, a bodyguard, and six government ministers.
The anniversary, which Myanmar commemorates as Martyrs’ Day, signifies a dream deferred. If only Aung San had survived, many believe, the promise of a strong, unified nation would have been achieved, with lasting peace between the ethnic Bamar majority and the roughly 135 ethnic minorities that have been part of this land for more than a millennia – instead of the near-perpetual war that many of them have fought against the state since 1947. It’s a story that suits the Bamar majority, but one many ethnic minorities – the very groups necessary to make Myanmar a truly unified nation – vigorously contest.
At the heart of this legend is Aung San’s role in a 1947 conference between the Bamar majority and ethnic minorities, known as the Panglong Conference, which produced a blueprint for a unified Burma. Until three months ago, I had no reason to doubt Aung San’s leadership role in Panglong. Now I’m not so sure. As Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, leads Myanmar today, reportedly pursuing a new “21st Century Panglong, getting this history right is the key to understanding what’s really at stake in Myanmar – and how to move forward.
For the Bamar, Aung San has long represented the highest aspirations of nationhood. And because the Bamar have dominated the state and represented the country to the world, it is their identity and their historical narratives that color Western understanding.
As I’ve written before, the present conflict goes back to 1886, and – like many modern conflicts rooted in decisions made during this period – starts with the British. When Britain conquered the Burmese monarchy, British leaders feared empowering the majority of the population that were ethnic Bamar, choosing instead to put ethnic minorities in important colonial positions. During World War II, ethnic minorities fought with Britain while Aung San led the Bamar who sided with Japan, switching sides aft the last minute when the allied victory seemed assured. As I described in a column last April:
[F]or their loyalty, the hill tribes expected British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make them independent territories. But when Clement Attlee and the Labor Party won the 1945 British general election instead, Attlee not only turned his back on ethnic minorities, but invited the leading Burmese general to meet with him in London – where he offered to give Burma, led by Burmans [the Bamar ethnic group], complete independence. That general’s name was Aung San.
In the Bamar version of the story, upon returning home, Aung San wisely and benevolently recognized the interests of the ethnic minorities, leading him to convene the February 1947 Panglong Conference with Shan, Karen, Chin, Kachin, and Karenni ethnic minority leaders. There, he negotiated an agreement that would lead to the creation of the Union of Burma, which the ethnic groups could opt out of after 10 years if they felt mistreated. This paved the way for the creation of a true nation, but Aung San’s untimely assassination as he prepared to take over from the British voided the promise of Panglong and led to the conflict with ethnic minorities that bedevils the country today.
It’s a story line that I and many others have taken on faith and supported for many years. As I wrote in April:
Aung San brought several of the hill tribes together in the Shan town of Panglong in February, 1947, where he negotiated a power-sharing agreement. But it was not meant to be: Aung San was assassinated, derailing Panglong and leading most of the hill tribes to declare war against the Burman majority.
After that column ran, I received an email from my friend Harn Yawnghwe, the respected son of the revered Sao Shwe Thaik, the long-time Shan leader and first president of the Union of Burma, who ruled from 1948 through 1952. His short note startled me. “Aung San did not bring the hill tribes together at Panglong in 1947,” he wrote. “After World War II, ethnic leaders were restive. They knew the British might abandon them, especially after the July 1945 elections. It was my father who organized an ethnic leaders conference in Panglong in February 1947 to see if they could work together to preserve their status.”
In 1947, Attlee called Aung San to London for talks on the future of Burma – without inviting any of the ethnic minorities. According to Harn Yawnghwe, his father, leading the Supreme Council of the United Hill Peoples, cabled Attlee in London to make clear that Aung San did not represent the minorities. His intervention led to the inclusion of an article in the January 27, 1947 agreement between Aung San and Attlee, stating the objective “to achieve the early unification of the Frontier Areas and Ministerial Burma with the free consent of the inhabitants of those areas.” In other words, as Harn Yawnghwe’s note to me made clear, Aung San had nothing to do with organizing the Panglong Conference – instead, he was forced to rush to the ethnic leaders’ conference already occurring at Panglong to fulfill his vision for independence.
If true – and I have little reason to believe Yawnghwe isn’t being truthful – it’s the equivalent of learning that John F. Kennedy wasn’t primarily responsible for saving the crew of PT-109 after it was sunk by a Japanese destroyer in 1943, as legend goes, but instead played a supporting role.
Why does this matter? One, because it dramatically changes our understanding of Aung San and his legacy. Two, because it shows how the lessons today’s peacemakers have learned from Panglong may not be the right ones.
Two months ago, Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, convened the second round of her “21st Century Panglong” peace talks with ethnic groups. Thus far, like Suu Kyi’s leadership, the conference has seen more pomp than purpose. “It was organized as if the leaders of the groups were treated like lower segments,” one attendee from a non-governmental organization told me, “and the NLD [Suu Kyi’s party] and others got the red carpet while the ethnic groups didn’t even know where they should sit.”
Perhaps the real lesson of the 1947 Panglong Conference is this: make yourself heard or you’ll be left out of the equation. Only when the ethnic groups made it clear to Attlee that Aung San didn’t represent them did the U.K. change course, forcing Aung San to the negotiating table. Maybe it’s time for the ethnic leaders of today to send a similar message to the United States and others: Aung San Suu Kyi does not represent us. And maybe it’s time the United States insist more forcefully that Suu Kyi – and Myanmar’s true source of power, the military – heed the interests of minority groups. Foreign investment from the United States and other Western powers matters to a military deeply entrenched in Myanmar’s economy; that gives us leverage. Our investment and aid should come with conditions.
In Myanmar’s Mon State, across the Thanlwin River, a steel bridge connects Mon State with Belugyun Island. In April, thousands of local people came out in protest. Why? Myanmar’s Lower House had approved legislation from Suu Kyi’s party naming the bridge after Aung San. “The protesters said they wanted their ethnic Mon culture and heritage to be respected in the naming of the bridge,” one article explained, “and they meant no disrespect to General Aung San.”
Today, as the Bamar celebrate the legacy and achievements of their fallen hero, it’s worth remembering that there are many hundreds of other values, stories, and interests in this ancient land. Whether Myanmar can ever become a unified nation – and I’m not optimistic – will depend on whether the ethnic minorities have the same rights as the Bamar.
Only then will Myanmar build not just stadiums, markets, and roads in memory of a distant past, but real bridges to the future, ones that everyone is allowed to cross – as equal citizens.
Stanley A. Weiss is a business leader and founder of Business Executives for National Security. His memoir, Being Dead is Bad for Business, is available online and a collection of his selected writings, titled Where Have You Gone, Harry Truman?, will be published by Disruption Books on July 31.