Aung San, Legacy of

   Aung San's legacy has been contested by successive Burmese governments, ethnic minorities, and the democratic opposition, especially after 1988. Following his rise to national prominence during the 1936 student strike, he became a man of action, a military as well as political leader, rather than a man of ideas. Yet he had a strongly modernist vision of the nation, as reflected in his commitment to the separation of religion and state, an opinion he held as early as his secondary school days. He was also opposed to the restoration of the monarchy in a postcolonial Burma. Like his nationalist student comrades, he embraced socialism as the antidote for colonial economic exploitation, and he was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Burma, serving as its secretary general in 1939-1940. He broke with the communists in 1946, however, and his successors, U Nu and Ne Win, espoused non-Marxist forms of socialism. Some scholars argue that Buddhist and other traditional influences on his thinking have been greatly underestimated, but he is largely remembered as the founder of a modern army and state.
   Ethnic minority leaders remember him fondly as the one Burman (Bamar) leader who treated them as equals in nation-building, at the February 1947 Panglong Conference. Unlike his successors, he did not propose the use of Buddhism or Burman ethnic identity as the basis for national unity. Especially during the Ne Win period (1962-1988), Aung San was revered as the "father" of the Tatmadaw, while Ne Win was its "stepfather." Portraits of him, usually in uniform, were prominent in government offices and on the nation's paper currency. His short life was a major theme in the country's history textbooks. On the 35th anniversary of Martyrs' Day in 1982, the state media described him as the "fourth unifier" of Burma, following the old kings Anawrahta, Bayinnaung, and Alaungpaya.
   When student activists and citizens carried his portrait in the streets of Rangoon (Yangon) and other cities during the massive demonstrations of 1988, he became a symbol of Burma's democratic aspirations, especially after his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, emerged as the most prominent leader of the post-1988 opposition movement. In several highly controversial statements, Aung San Suu Kyi indicated that Ne Win had betrayed Aung San's vision of the Tatmadaw as an army serving the people. As the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) consolidated its power in the early 1990s, it consciously downgraded Aung San's historical significance, while at the same time exalting the nation-building achievements of the old kings, especially Bayinnaung, whose royal palace at Pegu (Bago) was reconstructed. Portraits of Aung San largely disappeared from the nation's currency after 1988, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the most potent living symbol of Aung San's legacy, has been kept for considerable periods under house arrest.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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