Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Friday, 4 January 2008

Burma's bittersweet independence

By Joe Boyle
BBC News

For most nations, the anniversary of a successful independence struggle against imperial overlords would be marked with flag-waving, official celebrations and perhaps even a public holiday. Not so in Burma.

Aung San (R) was Burma's independence hero

On 4 January 1948, more than 60 years of British colonial rule came to an end.

Many Burmese had fared badly under the British, as integration into the empire's political and economic systems took its toll.

The authorities carried out mass executions as they sought to control the country, people's pride took a battering as Burma was absorbed into India, and the landscape was devastated as mangroves and lush jungle were cleared to create industrial-scale rice fields.

By the early 20th Century, the British had created an impoverished, dysfunctional society with the world's second-highest murder rate.

The seeds of rebellion had been sown among impoverished farmers and educated middle classes, and soldier-statesman Aung San emerged as the figurehead of resistance.

By mid-1947, Aung San had negotiated an independence agreement with the UK, his party had won a convincing election victory and a cabinet of ministers had been agreed to take over from the British.

The mood was optimistic - and if Burmese history had continued on this course, perhaps Independence Day would be a cause for celebration.

But even before independence was actually achieved, Aung San and six of his cabinet were murdered by a rival. His political movement splintered and the fallout has blighted the nation ever since.

No unifying figure

Aung Saw Oo, a US-based activist opposed to the ruling junta, describes Independence Day as the start of Burma's civil war.

"The war is still going on - Burma is the longest civil-war society in the world."

Burmese soldiers, file image March 2007
The military has ruled Burma since 1962

Aung Saw Oo is a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) - the Burmese opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San.

The NLD has decided to mark the anniversary with protests, and it is clear that few dissidents consider the date one to celebrate.

Kyaw Zwa Moe, a journalist from Irrawaddy magazine, which is run by Burmese in exile, says there is little to commemorate because Burma has not achieved true independence.

"Independence didn't bring liberty, prosperity or happiness to the Burmese people," he said.

"When we talk to young people in Rangoon and in the country, they don't even notice today is Independence Day."

In the decade following independence, Burma had no unifying figure to look to and its civilian government became overwhelmed by insurgencies from several ethnic and political communities.

In 1958 the army, led by Ne Win, stepped in to restore government control.

But Dr Pornpimol Trichoge, from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says the generals developed a taste for power between 1958 and 1960 that they have never managed to shake off.

"The civil government and political parties had not had enough of a chance to build themselves up to be as strong as the army," he said.

In 1962, Ne Win assumed control of the country. The military has ruled Burma ever since.

Rewriting history

While the opposition has little cause to celebrate independence, the junta also has mixed feelings.

Current leader Gen Than Shwe did not appear at the Independence Day commemoration.

Ne Win, pictured in 1958
Ne Win began the military's attempt to bring socialism to Burma

Kyaw Zwa Moe says the junta has spent its 45 years in power trying to eradicate the legacy of Aung San.

"Under Ne Win, they changed the picture on the currency - it used to have Aung San, but then the government removed his picture from the notes.

"Also in the school curricula - from primary school through to high school - they don't elaborate about Aung San."

He says the desire to wipe out the memory of Aung San is exacerbated by the strong family resemblance to his daughter.

"They don't even get a chance to see pictures of Aung San or Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Only the children born to political parents know all the facts."

Additional reporting by Philippa Fogarty in Bangkok.

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