After the British House of Commons finally held its first debate on Burma, with Tory MPs demanding that Aung San and his cohorts be arrested in order to regain the confidence of the Burmese people, Attlee made clear that there was no alternative to working with Aung San towards a roadmap for independence. In reality, though, the only official roadmap for Burma was still the June 1945 White Paper which postponed self-rule into the indefinite future, while holding out the prospect of secession by the Karens, Kachins and other hill peoples. By the time Rance took formal charge as governor in September 1946, Burma had been paralysed by a wave of strikes starting with the police, spreading to the rest of the government machinery, and then the railways and oil industry.
Nehru took charge as vice-chairman of the Viceroy’s Executive Council in India on 2 September. At his first meeting with the AFPFL on 21 September, Rance offered the same role in Burma to Aung San, and within a fortnight a deal was done: the AFPFL would have a prominent role in the Governor’s Executive Council (‘provisional government’), with Aung San as its vice-chairman (hence de facto prime minister) and minister of defence and foreign affairs, but the minorities and other political persuasions would also be accommodated, including followers of Ba Maw and U Saw.
From that point on, the still only thirty-year-old Aung San combined the roles of agitator (for a swift path to full independence) with that of statesman (particularly in reaching out to the minorities, including key British allies like the Karen).
He quickly made Tin Tut—educated at Dulwich and Cambridge, the most accomplished Burmese official of his generation (and the very first Burmese to become a member of the highly exclusive ICS)—his key adviser, and finance minister. During October 1946, the new government offered substantial pay increases to government workers, and then cracked down on further agitation, a decision that was hailed with a big pro-AFPFL rally in Rangoon. Before the latter, however, there was a parting of ways between Aung San and his old communist friend, Than Tun, undoubtedly a personally painful decision given that the two men’s wives were sisters. The communists had already split once in January 1946, when Thakin Soe formed the Red Flag Communist Party accusing his former comrades of ‘Browderism’ (compromising with imperialists, as the US communist leader Browder is said to have done). Now in October 1946, Than Tun’s White Flag Communist Party of Burma was expelled from the AFPFL as it continued to oppose participation in the Governor’s Executive Council (interim government).
Nehru began communicating directly with Aung San from early October – a signal both were sending of their independence from British control. In particular, Nehru told his Burmese counterpart that the 12,000 Indian troops still in Burma would soon be withdrawn, but only at a time that would not inconvenience Aung San. They also agreed to convene a conference of Asian leaders in March 1947.
Having stabilised the social situation (and averted a general strike) in October, Aung San laid out his goals in November: universal suffrage for the election in March 1947 (and without the separate electorates for Europeans, Indians, and other ethnic minorities under the Government of India Act of 1935 that were aimed at keeping the Burmans from a stable majority); an end to the governor’s discretionary power over ‘imperial’ subjects, bringing all such subjects within the Cabinet’s purview; and bringing the frontier areas into the remit of the national government and its cabinet.
Tin Tut was particularly insistent that constitutional progress should occur at the same pace as for India. Over the next few weeks, preparations were completed for a Burmese delegation (including Aung San and Tin Tut) to travel to London in early 1947 for talks with Attlee. Aung San stopped in New Delhi on the way, where Nehru treated him with great affection and regard, including having a new, more appropriate suit, overcoat and other clothing tailored for him to replace the longyis he had brought along, which would be utterly inadequate in an especially frigid London.
Tin Tut’s role was crucial when Aung San arrived in London for the first time, to negotiate the terms of independence with Attlee. After a fortnight, on 27 January 1947, Attlee agreed to recognise the interim government as a dominion, and both sides agreed to an early election to a new constituent assembly, the product of which would be presented to the British Parliament for approval – and all this would be achieved within Aung San’s self-imposed deadline for independence of 31 January 1948.
Attlee agreed to let the newly elected Burmese Parliament decide whether or not Burma would stay in the Commonwealth, but to sponsor Burma’s UN membership regardless of its choice.
U Saw, who was part of the Burmese delegation to London, ostentatiously rejected the Attlee-Aung San pact, and became one of its loudest critics (with the implicit backing of British conservatives, including Dorman-Smith).
Upon his return from London (where he had thrown a well-attended farewell reception at the posh Dorchester Hotel), Aung San first invited all the “hill peoples” to talks in February 1947 and an agreement on autonomy within the Union of Burma was reached by all present on the 13th, with the Shan, Kachin and Chin areas negotiating hard to gain autonomy and development assistance. They were all given the right to decide whether they wished to secede after ten years.
Conspicuously missing from these discussions about regional autonomy were the Karen, who were being egged on to hold out by several intransigent British officers led by a long-standing advocate of the minorities called Noel Stevenson. He privately decried Britain’s ‘betrayal’ of the hill peoples, and succeeded in getting the Karen National Union to boycott the talks, despite the fact that Aung San had made special efforts to reach out to the Karens and had good relations with several Karen leaders.
U Saw and the Karen National Union remained the key recalcitrants who preferred a closer relationship with Britain – dominion status with guarantees for British companies and a strong defence relationship. Aung San, too, had agreed to a small residual British troop presence, and was attacked sharply by the communists for this. That was more than satisfactory for the Attlee government.
Although British grand strategy for Burma had been predicated on supporting the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Anglo–Burmans and Indians as counterweights to the majority Burmans, the Attlee government expressly opposed the creation of a separate Karen state, partly because the Karen were not concentrated in a contiguous area (being in the majority in just one district), and the growing threat from China’s contending armies created an additional strategic imperative for a united Burma.
On 7 April 1947, Burma held its general election based on universal suffrage (something that never happened in India prior to Independence).
U Saw and the majority of Karens boycotted the election, and despite a low turnout of 49.8 per cent, the AFPFL won a landslide victory with 173 of the 210 seats, the communists winning 7 seats, two Karen groups taking 24, Anglo–Burmans 4 seats and 2 going to independents.
After the new Constituent Assembly was inaugurated on 11 June, Aung San convinced Mahn Ba Khaing, leader of the Karen Youth Union, to become minister of industry, while Sao Hsam Htun (a Shan chief) became the minister of hill regions, Abdul Razak (a prominent Muslim leader of the AFPFL) became minister of education and national planning, and Tin Tut continued as finance minister. The cabinet reflected Aung San’s earnest effort to conciliate groups that had been outside the nationalist movement and to build a representative cabinet that reflected Burma’s unity in ethnic diversity.
Before this unity cabinet could settle down, Governor Rance reported some very disturbing news to London on 16 July 1947: three weeks earlier, 200 Bren guns had been issued to “unknown” persons on the basis of a forged “demand note” from the Base Ordnance Depot of the still British-controlled Burma Command. Around the same time, about 25,000 rounds of Sten gun ammunition and 100,000 rounds of small arms ammunition had mysteriously “gone missing”.
This threatened to drastically alter the balance of power in Rangoon, by providing enormous firepower to those who had got hold of this cache of ammunition. Rumours were afoot that British rogue elements were seeking to arm the opposition in order to overthrow the government and replace it with one that would agree to dominion status rather than the complete independence (and departure from the Commonwealth) that Aung San wanted.
On 19 July 1947, Aung San was chairing a meeting of his Executive Council at the main Secretariat building in Rangoon, when three gunmen with Sten guns burst in at a little after 10:30 a.m. and opened indiscriminate fire.
Aung San had stood up when he heard the commotion outside, and was the first one to be felled by the hail of gunfire; the founding national hero of Burma died instantly. He was only thirty-one years old.
The gunmen then fired at all the other men in the room, killing four other council members and mortally wounding two others. Tin Tut was seriously injured too, but survived, only to be assassinated the following year. Burma’s founding national government had been eliminated within just six weeks of its birth. It was as if George Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Madison had been assassinated in the Spring of 1789 before the new US republic could begin to settle down. Burma had been mortally wounded at birth.
U Nu was the only council member absent from the meeting at the Secretariat, and Rance quickly turned to him to take Aung San’s place. Another set of assassins had also gone to Nu’s residence but found him away. By that afternoon, the Special Branch had concluded that neither Than Tun’s White Flag nor Thakin Soe’s Red Flag communists were involved in the assassination. Instead, they raided U Saw’s home, and found a Sten gun and eighteen rifles concealed there, and a suspicious Jeep without a number plate parked in his compound. When they drained a lake on U Saw’s property, the police discovered thirty-seven Bren guns, fifty-nine spare barrels and eight revolvers.
At the home of another key member of U Saw’s party, the police found forty-four hand grenades and forty-nine detonators. Evidence emerged that U Saw had paid two British Army officers, and another British officer had reported to his senior that U Saw himself admitted to stealing the arms, but this superior officer simply filed this information away instead of reporting it to the police. U Nu, recognising that evidence of such widespread British involvement would set off a conflagration (including possibly severe reprisals against Britishers) that could delay the progress towards independence, chose not to reveal most of these facts. U Saw and the actual assassins were convicted and hanged.
Excerpted with permission from Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises From The Ravages Of Colonialism And War To A New Dynamism, Prasenjit K Basu, Aleph Book Company.
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