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Friday, April 16, 2021

The March of Myanmar’s Generals

In the final days of World War II, as the Allied forces closed in, the Burma National Army switched sides that day and turned against the Imperial Japanese Army to lead the underground Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League.

Written by Rakesh Sinha |
Updated: March 21, 2021 8:39:50 am
Protesters flee an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: Reuters)

March 27 is six days away. Sacred to the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, it’s a red-letter day from 1945, a turning point on Burma’s road to freedom.

In the final days of World War II, as the Allied forces closed in, the Burma National Army switched sides that day and turned against the Imperial Japanese Army to lead the underground Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League.

Last year, the outbreak of the pandemic put on hold the celebrations planned for the 75th Tatmadaw Day. And there’s no saying what the Generals plan to do this March 27.

Across Myanmar, troops are on the streets, quelling protests after the Tatmadaw carried out a coup on February 1 to end the country’s dalliance with democracy.

Yet this day is also special to Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD leader who has been ousted and placed under detention again. It was her father, Aung San, who led the Burma National Army revolt in 1945 — the Resistance Day, later renamed the Tatmadaw Day.

Aung San was Burma’s hero, still revered. In 1941, he founded the Burma Independence Army with Japanese help. One of the Thirty Comrades, he had been trained by the Japanese on the occupied island of Hainan in China.

As its numbers swelled and Rangoon fell to the Japanese in March 1942, the BIA became the Burma Defence Army. A year later, the BDA transformed into the Burma National Army. Ne Win, one of the Thirty Comrades on Hainan with Aung San, became a BNA commander.

Aung San was assassinated in July 1947, months before Burma became independent in January 1948 — among the men shot dead in the room, where the interim cabinet had gathered for a meeting, was Abdul Razak, a Tamil Muslim minister, the son of an Indian police inspector.

Ne Win’s rise was dramatic and he became chief of the Tatmadaw in 1949. He grabbed power briefly in October 1958, but returned the reins to Prime Minister U Nu a little over a year later.

But that spell of democracy ended on a March day in 1962 when Ne Win carried out a coup. He switched off Burma, declared his Burmese Socialist Programme Party as the only recognised party and began wheeling the nation on the Burmese Way to Socialism.

For 26 years, Burma remained a hermit. And became increasingly xenophobic. So when the Little Red Book found its way in, from across the border with China during the Cultural Revolution, anti-Chinese riots swept the land.

Ne Win ruled with an iron fist, like any military dictator. But there was a side to him — and to the Generals who were to rule Myanmar later. He loved to consult the stars, and had great faith in numerology.

Told by an astrologer that 9 was his lucky number, Ne Win withdrew kyat notes, replacing them with 45 and 90 notes because they were divisible by 9 and the numerals added up to 9.

This demonetisation in 1987 plunged the already weary country into the depths of despair, but Ne Win felt secure — and happy.

That joy was short-lived. The very next year, the numbers led to his downfall. The 8888 Uprising, a protest by students that began on August 8, 1988, led to another coup — this time by a junta which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council.

The name change did not end there. A year after it put down the uprising, the SLORC changed the name of the country and its then capital.

Burma became Myanmar — the Generals said it was more inclusive a name for a country named after the dominant Bamar population — and Rangoon became Yangon.

Saw Maung, the first chief of SLORC, was replaced four years later by another Senior General, Than Shwe, who ruled for the next 19 years — he gave up his post on a March day in 2011.

But Ne Win had left a legacy — in more ways than his Burmese Way.

In 2005, when it came to moving the capital to Naypyitaw — many believe that the Generals, worried about frequent protests in Yangon, also feared an invasion from the sea given the proximity — the Tatmadaw brass again consulted the stars.

Eleven, they were told. So, at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 11 ministries and 11 military units in 1,100 trucks set out for the new capital, some 300 km north of Yangon.

Imperial in scale, and founded in the tradition of the great Burmese kings, Naypyitaw was formally inaugurated in 2006 — on March 27, the Tatmadaw Day.

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