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Politics

Remembering modern Myanmar's founding father

70 years after Aung San's death, nation still grapples with unresolved problems

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Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attends an event marking the 70th anniversary of Martyrs' Day in Yangon.   © Reuters

YANGON -- Car horns blared in the streets of Myanmar's most populous city at 10:37 a.m. Wednesday, 70 years to the day that independence leader Gen. Aung San was gunned down as the nation stood on the brink of achieving his dream.

The Southeast Asian nation has made remarkable strides toward economic liberalization since shaking off decades of military rule in 2011. But some of the problems it grapples with today -- notably poverty and the need for peace between majority Burmans and minority ethnic groups -- remain entrenched from the time of its emergence from British rule.

Mynamar's de facto leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, marked Martyrs' Day by laying flowers at the Martyrs' Mausoleum near Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon's largest Buddhist site. There she bowed deeply in memory of the man revered as the father of modern Mynamar -- and her own -- and the eight others killed in the assassination. Suu Kyi has led the country since March 2016, when her National League for Democracy formed a government after a general election landslide.

The site of the assassination, restored to its appearance on that fateful day in 1947 by the Yangon Heritage Trust, was opened to the public for the first time Wednesday. People thronged to see the room at The Secretariat downtown where four gunmen broke into a meeting of the Executive Council, the cabinet-in-waiting at the time. Aung San was shot dead along with six of his ministers, a cabinet official and a security guard. Exactly who was behind the killings remains a matter of debate, but political enemies of the general have long been suspected.

A firm hand

Like today, Myanmar was moving through a period of great change. Then known as Burma, the nation had expelled Japanese occupiers and was on the cusp of independence from Britain. An agreement with the British in January of that year guaranteed that independence. In February, Aung San's government signed the Panglong Agreement with three minority ethnic groups to bring them into a federal union with the Burmese state. A general election followed in April.

Khin Maung, a 52-year-old artist visiting the Martyrs' Mausoleum on Wednesday, credited Aung San's endeavors with bringing about independence for Myanmar. But "we still can't say that we are free from fear," he said, calling for further steps toward democracy including freedom of expression. 

If the general were alive today, mused Kyi Kyi, a shopkeeper, he would bring stability to the country, if not peace.

Ye Aung, a taxi driver, speculated that Aung San "may handle the country more strictly" than it is governed now, "because he always mentioned in his speeches to 'have discipline.'"

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