The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Reflections on Martyrs’ Day and Aung San

Sunday marked the 62nd anniversary of Martyrs’ Day, the Burmese national holiday commemorating the triumph and assassination of Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and his companions in the fight for Burmese independence from British rule. Demonstrators from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) peacefully marched to the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon, only to confront a thousand-strong conglomerate of repressive riot police, soldiers, and security forces. The junta’s forces arrested 50 pro-democracy activists. Such actions hardly bolstered the regime’s claim to sincerity regarding the limited-amnesty "promises" of Burma’s permanent representative to the UN

Martyrs’ Day’s symbolic worth stems not only from the withering legacy of Aung San’s independence movement, but also from the brutal crackdowns that frequently surround Martyrs’ Day demonstrations. The Burmese junta’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protests since the 1988 resignation of General Ne Win and ascendancy of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) have lent greater relevance to Aung San’s freedom cries. Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi’s permanence as a leading Burmese advocate for democracy, human rights, and political freedom stems in part from her father’s history. Aung San’s commentary on the separation of powers between the military and the popularly-elected executive, respect for the democratic process, and unity between ethnic minorities remains pertinent to this day. Insofar as Aung San became both the practical and symbolic leader of Burma’s independence movement throughout the 1930s and ’40s, his daughter has undertaken a similar role in Burma’s movement against the tyranny of authoritarianism and military rule. 
Burma has indisputably achieved its independence, but Aung San’s work is far from complete. His quest for ethnic unity remains unfulfilled–Burma remains a balkanized confederation of largely-homogeneous states. Greatly disturbed by the conflict between the ethnic minority Karens and the majority Burmese, Aung San incorporated a Karen battalion into the anti-imperialist Burmese army. Such demonstrations of goodwill, however, did little to ameliorate ethnic tensions. As human rights advocates like STAND have noted, the military junta has engaged in a policy of mass "Burmanization" in the Karen State of eastern Burma. In May, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic issued a report, authored by a group of five internationally-renowned jurists, describing the dearth of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in the Karen State by the Burmese regime. The majority of Burma’s 500,000 IDPs have been displaced by the junta’s decades-long military campaign against the Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). The regime has restricted regional access for humanitarian aid groups, manipulating outbreaks of dengue fever and malaria to perpetuate human suffering. Campaigns of mass rape, torture of political prisoners, and extra-judicial killings have also become present realities for civilians in eastern Burma. There are indications that the regime also seeks to increase its military presence in the Kachin State of northern Burma, a worrisome prospect for the Kachin civilian population.

Such government atrocities indicate the limitations of Aung San’s work, and the extent to which Burma must progress to truly fulfill Aung San’s legacy of national unity. Unfortunately little can be done: though Congress looks towards renewing sanctions against the Burmese junta (in the form of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act), and the EU has threatened sanctions pending the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s primary providers of security and economic support–China, Thailand, Russia–remain more or less steadfast in their neglect of the regime’s unwillingness to observe the "responsibility to protect." Until the international community can urge action on the part of the aforementioned countries, the fulfillment of Aung San’s legacy will remain stalled in history.

-Daniel Solomon, National Burma Education Coordinator.

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