After being suppressed under military rule, the desire to revive the memory of Myanmar’s independence leader is understandable, but the erection of Bogyoke Aung San statues in ethnic nationality areas against local wishes offends the ideals he stood and died for.
By SALAI ZA UK LING | FRONTIER
THE BUILDING spree of statues of Bogyoke Aung San in cities and towns throughout Myanmar in recent years has been counter-productive. It has not strengthened respect for and sentimental attachment towards the assassinated statesman and revolutionary leader but has instead tarnished his legacy.
Those who have orchestrated and supported building the statues seem to be unconcerned by the persistent displays of displeasure, and sometimes outright opposition, in the communities where they have been erected.
Supporters propose two main reasons for building the statues, concerning cost and recognition. The supporters argue that, because the statues are funded by private donations, they are providing a public good for free.
The second argument is, at first glance, more convincing. It is that after more than two decades of concerted effort by the previous military regime to conceal the face of Aung San from public view – including removing his face from bank notes after the demonetisation of 1987 – and downplay his heroic contribution to the struggle for independence, it is time for all citizens to celebrate his legacy again. This is regarded as being especially important now that the political environment has changed under the National League for Democracy government headed by his daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This argument is based on the truth and is acceptable to most people.
The question then arises, what is making so many people uncomfortable about the erection of Aung San statues in public places in their towns and cities, especially when they still accord him so much respect and reverence, 72 years after his untimely death? The answer is simple. It is not a rejection of the idea of statues of Aung San, but rather the way in which proponents have tried to shove the idea down people’s throats.
Opponents of the statues, especially in the ethnic nationality states, see something sinister about erecting monuments to honour Aung San and naming publicly funded infrastructure in his honour. But rather than being listened to, those who have questioned where the money needed to build the statues has come from, or have raised concern about the political implications of honouring a Bamar leader in multi-ethnic Myanmar, have been accused of being unpatriotic or even publicly mocked for being ignorant of history.
Karenni activists have demonstrated – and some have faced criminal charges – over their vehement opposition to an equestrian statue of Aung San that was unveiled in the Kayah State capital, Loikaw, in February this year.
In early 2017, there were angry protests in Mon State over a decision to name after Aung San a bridge over the Thanlwin (Salween) River linking Mawlamyine, the capital, with Bilu Island. The Bogyoke Aung San Bridge was opened on April 27, 2017, a month after the name was approved in the NLD-dominated Pyithu Hluttaw by a vote 217 to 43, with 116 abstentions. The parliamentary intervention to enforce the controversial choice of name for the bridge was seen by many as being emblematic of the tyranny of the majority being imposed on ethnic minorities under the guise of democracy.
My home state of Chin is the focus of the latest controversy over a statue of Aung San. It is important to remember that in Chin, the NLD won nearly all national and state hluttaw seats in the 2015 general election, including a subsequent by-election to fill the seat left vacant by the appointment of U Henry Van Thio as second vice president. Most people would therefore assume that a decision to erect a statue of Aung San in Chin would be less contentious than in other states. State government officials announced last week that the bronze standing statue had arrived in the Chin capital, Hakha, and would be erected at a site yet to be decided. They were not expecting much local opposition to the plan, they said.
Nonetheless, the announcement caused surprise because strong community opposition had forced the municipal authorities in neighbouring Thantlang Township to back down on a similar plan. On a closer examination of local grievances, it is unsurprising that opposition is simmering over the merits of erecting an Aung San statue in the Chin homeland.
With a general election due next year, lawmakers in the NLD-led state government in Chin feel they need to strike a delicate balance between not inflaming the people they represent and not displeasing their party bosses in Nay Pyi Taw.
Chin university students have issued a strongly worded statement condemning the plan and other groups are reportedly planning similar action.
An argument used to support erecting the Aung San statues is the need to celebrate his role as the architect of Burma’s independence and the 1947 Panglong Agreement, a formula for federalism that he signed with Chin, Kachin and Shan leaders. The erection of the statues has coincided with the holding of Union Peace Conferences, branded as “21st Century Panglong”, that are the NLD’s signature contribution to a peace process that has produced few concrete results under its rule.
As debate over the statues became heated, the justifications for erecting them were countered by ethnic nationalists who said Aung San did not singlehandedly gain independence from the British for all of Burma. Rather, they say, it was a collective decision by Aung San, as the sole representative of the interim Burmese government, together with the Chin, Kachin and Shan leaders, to forge a political contract in the form of the agreement signed at Panglong that provided the basis for Burma’s independence from the British. Some have said that if a monument is meant to celebrate the achievement of independence, then statues of the other signatories of the Panglong Agreement should be erected beside that of Aung San.
The residents of Chin, a Christian-majority state, have a long and painful experience of religious and ethnic discrimination under successive Bamar-dominated governments. It should be no surprise that some conservative Christian leaders in Chin regard the statue-building as a form of idolatry and yet another means of subjugating the Chin. Under the military regime, hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas were built throughout Chin against local wishes and the many of the crosses planted by Christians on hilltops near their towns and villages were dismantled on the orders of the highest authorities.
The debate also raises the question of what Aung San would think about being the target of opprobrium and what he might have said to those driving the building spree.
In common with many involved in this debate, I have reservations about the statues. It is not that I think Aung San has no rightful place in history but rather because those pushing the statue-building agenda are so utterly patronising and incapable of empathising with, let alone accepting, contrary views.
I grew up feeling sentimentally attached to Aung San’s family because my late mother lived in its household in the 1950s. My mother was training as a midwife at the time and was taken into the family home of Daw Khin Kyi, Aung San’s wife, along with other women from different ethnic backgrounds. My mother would talk passionately about living with Aung San’s family and proudly show us old images that she kept in a photo album, which has been a prized family possession since my mother died 32 years ago.
It is not the “what” that has stirred controversy over the statues, but rather the “how”. Those who have supported the building campaign in recent months and years in the belief that they are promoting overdue recognition of Aung San’s achievements, including his pact with ethnic nationalities, are sadly mistaken. They have tarnished the Bogyoke’s good legacy and degraded the ideals and principles he stood and died for.