Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s military commander-in-chief attended a commemorative ceremony on Tuesday in the commercial capital Yangon honoring the fallen heroes of the country’s independence movement, including her father, General Aung San.
The Martyrs’ Day national holiday is observed annually to commemorate the deaths of Aung San and seven other leaders of the pre-independence interim government who were assassinated on July 19, 1947, a year before Myanmar, then called Burma, gained its independence from British colonial rule.
On this day, top-level government officials visit the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, dedicated to Aung San and the others who were killed, near the northern gate of the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda in the commercial capital Yangon.
In the past, Myanmar’s powerful military had largely ignored the holiday. But this year, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing participated in the ceremony for the first time in years and attended a Buddhist prayer service along with other military commanders at Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence.
“Martyrs’ Day was fading for many years in the past, but many people have attended the Martyrs’ Day ceremony this year,” said writer and film director Maung Moe Thu. “It means history cannot fade away, and will one day appear [again].”
“Seeing military chief Min Aung Hlaing at today’s ceremony, we hope that the military will accede to what we demand or want in the future,” he said. “The military ignored Martyrs’ Day for a long time, so it’s strange to see them attend a public ceremony like this. It shows a change, but we don’t know how much they will change.”
A military junta in Myanmar, which seized power in 1962 and ruled the country for 50 years, kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years and imprisoned several of her aides from the pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
The regime brutally repressed a popular pro-democracy uprising in 1988, and two years later denied the NLD a legitimate victory in national elections.
“But after 1988, Martyrs’ Day was not held as a state ceremony anymore,” said Tin Myint, son of Abdul Razak, a well-respected Muslim politician who advocated for a secular state in the majority Buddhist country and was killed alongside Aung San.
When the NLD won national elections last November, Min Aung Hlaing pledged to honor the election results and work with the new civilian-led government that came to power in April.
Though Aung San Suu Kyi is prohibited from becoming president under the constitution, drafted in 2008 when the junta ruled the country, she essentially runs the country in her role as state counselor under proxy President Htin Kyaw, her aide and close friend.
‘We should work together’
People of all faiths also commemorated the day by participating peacefully in ceremonies at a time when Myanmar's minority Muslim population has come under fire by ultranationalist Buddhists.
“All the martyrs were from different ethnic groups and practiced different religions,” said writer and former political prisoner Tun Zaw Htay. “But they worked together to gain freedom from the British. They didn’t work by setting their sights only on religion or nationality.”
“We should work together like they did by loving everybody—all ethnicities and nationalities—and the country,’ he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi is organizing peace talks with armed ethnic groups and the national army to end decades of fighting and complete a nationwide cease-fire pact.
She has dubbed the summit the 21st-century Panglong Peace Conference after a 1947 meeting in which her father granted autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities before Myanmar gained its independence.
His assassination a few months later prevented the agreements made during the conference from reaching fruition, and many ethnic groups then took up arms against the central government in wars, some of which continue today.
Myanmar’s military plays a crucial role in Aung San Suu Kyi’s plan for permanent peace because officers hold a constitutionally guaranteed quarter of the seats in parliament and control three defense and security-related ministries.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine, Nay Rein Kyaw and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.