Mar­tyr's Day: a wake-up call for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in Myan­mar

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - CHIT WIN news­room@mm­

FOR many rea­sons, this year’s Mar­tyrs’ Day on July 19 was a sig­nif­i­cant break from the past. For the first time, it was held un­der a Na­tional League for Democ­racy-backed gov­ern­ment. Af­ter sev­eral decades of ab­sence, it was also the first time the com­man­der-in-chief at­tended.

And, for the first time since 1988, this Mar­tyrs’ Day peo­ple heard the sound of sirens and stood still at 10:37am, when the mar­tyrs were as­sas­si­nated in 1947. For two min­utes, peo­ple of all faiths, races and ide­olo­gies united un­der one siren call.

But most im­por­tantly, this year’s Mar­tyrs’ Day was a wake-up call for na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in Myan­mar.

Mar­tyrs’ Day is not just about re­mem­ber­ing Bo­gyoke Aung San and the eight other fallen in­de­pen­dence he­roes. It has al­ways been an im­por­tant act of po­lit­i­cal sym­bol­ism. Pay­ing re­spect and lay­ing wreaths for those killed that day is a core tra­di­tion in Myan­mar. So lay­ered in sym­bol­ism is it, that it was the tar­get of a ter­ror­ist at­tack in 1983 that killed, among oth­ers, four South Korean se­nior cab­i­net min­is­ters.

Dur­ing mil­i­tary rule, Mar­tyrs’ Day events were part of a com­plex de­ci­pher­ing ex­er­cise for for­eign diplo­mats and ex­perts watch­ing the roller-coaster re­la­tion­ship be­tween Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – the daugh­ter of Bo­gyoke Aung San – and the junta. It was the only time when peo­ple could see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in pub­lic dur­ing her house ar­rest. Peo­ple paid close at­ten­tion to her ev­ery sin­gle move and used the event to spec­u­late on her re­la­tion­ship with the gen­er­als. Her ab­sence usu­ally sig­nalled prob­lems.

Mar­tyrs’ Day was also a day for po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was ar­rested a day af­ter the event in 1989 when stu­dents con­fronted the mil­i­tary. For many of Myan­mar’s peo­ple, ob­serv­ing Mar­tyrs’ Day meant ex­er­cis­ing their po­lit­i­cal rights. By pay­ing their re­spects at the mau­soleum in Yan­gon com­mem­o­rat­ing the dead and other as­so­ci­ated events, it was an op­por­tu­nity for po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists to ex­press their re­sis­tance to mil­i­tary rule.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment tried to di­min­ish the cer­e­mony. Tra­di­tion­ally, it was state-led and at­tended by a cab­i­net min­is­ter, but later it was down­graded to the re­gional level and usu­ally led by the mayor of Yan­gon. It also lost its sta­tus as a front-page story in state-owned news­pa­pers. The sirens were also si­lenced.

How­ever, dur­ing Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein’s ad­min­is­tra­tion things be­gan to change.

In 2011, Mar­tyrs’ Day was still at­tended by the Yan­gon mayor on be­half of the gov­ern­ment. In 2012, it was up­graded to a na­tional cer­e­mony, and it was Vice Pres­i­dent Sai Mauk Kham who presided over the cer­e­mony. In 2013, he was ac­com­pa­nied by two par­lia­men­tary deputy speak­ers.

In 2014, two par­lia­men­tary Speak­ers and the chief jus­tice also joined the event. For the first time, the pres­i­dent at­tended a Bud­dhist re­li­gious me­mo­rial ser­vice in Nay Pyi Taw for Bo­gyoke Aung San and his fel­low mar­tyrs.

For the gov­ern­ment, such moves meant more po­lit­i­cal open­ness and marked their com­mit­ment to change. How­ever, there was nei­ther the sound of sirens nor the pres­ence of the com­man­der-in-chief.

This year un­der the new NLD-led ad­min­is­tra­tion, Mar­tyrs’ Day re­ceived more at­ten­tion than ever be­fore.

The mau­soleum for the fallen had a facelift af­ter years of ne­glect. It was re­cently ren­o­vated, and so too was the old Sec­re­tariat’s meet­ing room where Bo­gyoke Aung San and his min­is­ters held their last con­fer­ence be­fore be­ing mur­dered. His res­i­dence, which is now a mu­seum, was also re­dec­o­rated. Else­where in Myan­mar, peo­ple were busy clean­ing Bo­gyoke Aung San stat­ues and mak­ing stat­ues of other mar­tyrs.

On the morn­ing of July 19, 2016, peo­ple wit­nessed State Coun­sel­lor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Com­man­der-in-Chief Se­nior Gen­eral Min Aung Hlaing lay­ing wreaths at the mau­soleum. Peo­ple were mes­merised when they saw them to­gether again at a Bud­dhist me­mo­rial ser­vice held at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s res­i­dence. And the sirens, so long silent, sounded once more.

There was no need to de­ci­pher what this all meant. For once, Myan­mar was united.

A new cul­ture has now emerged where pedes­tri­ans and com­muters stop what they are do­ing and ob­serve Mar­tyrs’ Day. In fu­ture years, when Myan­mar pays re­spect to these nine mar­tyrs, it should re­mem­ber that they were of dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies, ca­reers, faiths and races, but united and sac­ri­ficed their lives for one cause – the in­de­pen­dence of Myan­mar.

To­day, the sound of the siren is a wake-up call for na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for all peo­ple of Myan­mar, re­gard­less of who they are and what they be­lieve.

Chit Win is a PhD can­di­date in the Co­ral Bell School of Asia Pa­cific Af­fairs at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity and mem­ber of the ANU Myan­mar Re­search Cen­tre. This ar­ti­cle is sup­plied in part­ner­ship with New Man­dala, a web­site on South­east Asian af­fairs based at ANU.

Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

Com­man­der-in-Chief Se­nior Gen­eral Min Aung Hlaing (right) at­tends Mar­tyrs’ Day com­mem­o­ra­tions at the Mar­tyrs’ Mau­soleum in Yan­gon on July 19.

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