Imagine Indians forgetting all about Gandhi. Or Indonesians failing to honor Sukarno. Impossible? Yet that's what seems to have happened with another independence hero, Aung San of Burma, who fought both the British and the Japanese to secure his country's freedom from foreign rule. Aung San's name has been dropped from official speeches. His boyish face has disappeared from Burmese bank notes. His grave has been closed to the public for years. One academic has described the process as "Aung San amnesia."
Blame it on the very institution he founded, the Burmese army, which seized power in a 1962 coup. Ordinary Burmese still privately revere Aung San as the father of the nation. But for Burma's generals, he is primarily the father of jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose name they will go to any lengths to forget?even dishonoring their independence hero in the process.
Aung San was born in 1915 in Natmauk, a small town 400 km north of the capital Rangoon. He had rebellion in his blood: his great-uncle had been beheaded for fighting the British. After graduating from the élite Rangoon University, where he was a student firebrand, Aung San joined a radical nationalist group whose members addressed each other as thakin, or "master"?a phrase Burmese were supposed to reserve for their British rulers. In World War II, his forces fought alongside the Japanese, but switched sides to join the allies in his single-minded pursuit of independence. Quick-tempered, direct and searingly honest, Aung San negotiated Burma's postwar freedom from the British and won the respect of millions of his own people in this large and ethnically diverse land.
In July 1947, just six months before Burma's independence, Aung San and six members of his provisional cabinet were gunned down on the orders of a political rival. His murder, at the age of 32, was Burma's tragedy. Deprived of his drive and authority, the country disintegrated into civil war. The military seized power 15 years later and led Burma into poverty, isolation and fear.
While the junta ignores Aung San, ordinary Burmese have forgotten neither him nor his daughter, who has now endured more than 4,000 days under arrest. In a tribute to her father, Suu Kyi described him as a leader "who put the interests of the country before his own needs, who remained poor and unassuming at the height of his power, who accepted the responsibilities of leadership without hankering after the privileges, and who retained at the core of his being a deep simplicity." Many Burmese would describe his courageous daughter in exactly the same way.