Suu Kyi’s choice

Like her father, Aung San Suu Kyi is a political realist grounded in her nation’s history.

Aung San Suu Kyi 2
Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen a non-violent political path for pragmatic reasons [EPA]

Oxford, United Kingdom – In the second of her 2011 Reith Lectures broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Aung San Suu Kyi made an extremely interesting remark about her own politics. She said: “I was attracted to the way of non-violence, but not on moral grounds, as some believe. Only on practical, political grounds.”

Ever since Suu Kyi shot to fame as the face of the struggle for democracy against a brutally repressive military regime in Myanmar, she has been seen globally as an embodiment of Gandhian principles of non-violence.

Suu Kyi was not a public figure until she was caught up in the democracy movement while visiting her ailing mother in 1988. Her instant name recognition and political status in then-Burma was due to her being the daughter of Aung San, the leader of the Burmese independence movement, revered in Myanmar. But few remarked on the irony that “General” Aung San, as he was known, had chosen the path of armed struggle against the British, and then the Japanese.

Had his daughter accepted his political mantle, but rejected the political philosophy of her father?

For some time now, her long, brave and extraordinarily graceful struggle against the Burmese junta has earned Suu Kyi her own global iconic status. Indeed, to many around the world, Aung San today is known more as Suu Kyi’s father than the other way around. As a result there has not been much discussion of the choices Aung San made earlier, and how relevant they might be for Suu Kyi’s political struggle many years later.

In her Reith lecture, Suu Kyi referred to the political legacy she had inherited: “In one of the first public speeches I made in 1988, I suggested that we were launching out on our second struggle for independence. The first, in the middle of the last century, had brought us freedom from colonial rule. The second, we hope, would bring us freedom from military dictatorship.”

However, it was clear that she was an independent thinker who had no qualms forging a different path in different times. “We could draw inspiration from the triumphs of our forebears”, she said, “but we could not confine ourselves to our own history in the quest for ideas and tactics that could aid our own struggle. We had to go beyond our own colonial experience.”

Looking for “ideas and inspiration”, Suu Kyi and her colleagues turned to the experience of the Indian independence movement, and found their answer in Gandhi’s non-violent civil resistance. Her father, Aung San, and his fellow political activists had also looked to India for ideas and inspiration. They had come to entirely different conclusions.

Different inspirations

Contacts between the Burmese and Indian nationalist movements developed in the final decades of the British Empire. There was a substantial Indian population in Burma at the time, and the British also used Burma as a place to incarcerate troublesome Indian nationalists. (Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the nationalist leader from Maharashtra, had been imprisoned in Burma from 1908 to 1914. Another such political prisoner was Subhas Chandra Bose, who was held without trial in Mandalay and Insein prisons for nearly two years between 1925 and 1927.)

In “Subhas Chandra Bose and the Burmese Freedom Movement”, the Czech scholar Jan Becka wrote about the early connections between the Burmese and Indian freedom movements. In Mandalay, Bose met Burmese political prisoners and came to know Burma well. These contacts were later followed up by Burmese nationalists.

In the 1930s, the Burmese nationalist party Dobama Asiayone, led by the Thakins, began to send delegates to the annual gathering of the Indian National Congress. Aung San became a prominent leader of this movement. The Thakins were influenced by leftist political ideology and connected well with the left wing of the Congress, to which Bose belonged.

Bose’s more radical alternative to Gandhism, expounded as president of the Indian National Congress in 1938 and 1939 and later as leader of the Forward Bloc, was popular with the Thakins, in particular after the disappointments of the constitutional movements of the thirties. As Becka put it:

The negative attitude of Britain towards Burmese national aspirations and the unwillingness of the British ruling circles to commit themselves to any statement on future political status of Burma however made most Thakins, nationalists as well as leftists, oppose the policy of supporting the British war effort and led them to agree with Subhas Bose that the freedom movements in both the countries should make the fullest use of the involvement of Britain in the World War for their own common goal, ie, attainment of national independence.

In October 1939, the Burma Freedom Bloc was founded as a united anti-imperialist front, with Ba Maw, the former head of the limited colonial government, as president and Aung San as secretary-general. Some say even the name was inspired by Subhas Bose’s Forward Bloc in India, founded as a radical group within the Indian National Congress.

Shared goals

The two blocs shared the goals of complete independence from Britain and a future society based on socialism, as also the wartime strategy that Britain’s difficulty was their opportunity. Bose and Aung San met when the Thakins went to India to attend the 1940 Ramgarh session of the Indian National Congress. As US historian Peter Fay remarked in his The Forgotten Army: India’s Armed Struggle for Independence 1942-1945, the political lives of these two leaders, who were so completely different in terms of social background and temperament, seemed to run along parallel lines from then on.

The British hit back strongly against the more radical political movements in India and Burma. Bose was arrested in 1940, while Aung San narrowly escaped arrest. In Becka’s view, Forward Bloc and Freedom Bloc virtually ceased to exist. Aung San made his way to Japan. “He saw no profit in waiting to be jailed again. ‘The time has come to strike,’ he wrote later.”

He and a group of Burmese nationalist volunteers received military training from the Japanese and returned –  the “Thirty Heroes” – to command the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in Thailand [Joyce Lebra, Jungle Alliance]. When Gandhi began the “Quit India” movement in August 1942, the Burma Independence Army was fighting openly against the British on the Japanese side. Japan granted Burma nominal independence in 1943, as Ba Maw became the premier and head of state and General Aung San became defence minister.

Subhas Bose also did not want to wait out the war in jail. He went on hunger strike to get out of prison and then escaped from house arrest in January 1941.

After a largely abortive bid to fight for India’s independence with German help, he arrived in Southeast Asia in 1943, after an extraordinary submarine journey from Kiel in northern Germany, around the Cape of Good Hope, transferring from the German to a Japanese submarine off Madagascar, to land in Sabang on the Sumatran coast.

He formed the Indian National Army (INA) with Japanese help, was welcomed back to Burma by his Burmese nationalist colleagues – and the INA and BIA fought side by side against the British on the Burma front.

Neither Bose nor Aung San lived to see the independence for which they fought; Bose was killed in an air crash in August 1945, and Aung San was assassinated in July 1947.

Diverging strategies

By 1944, the Indian and Burmese nationalist fighters faced different situations in Burma. While there were cordial relations between the Azad Hind (Free India) government and the Burmese nationalist government, two elements started to diverge in terms of their strategic position.

First, while there was initial popular enthusiasm for the defeat of British colonialists by the Japanese forces and the establishment of independent Burma, the oppressive conduct of the Japanese military towards the Burmese fuelled antagonism against the Japanese. Second, after the failure of the Imphal campaign, the tide of the war turned against the Japanese and in favour of the British. Aung San decided to change sides.

In August 1944, a Burmese front named the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) was formed, and, in March 1945, Aung San and the Burmese national army turned around and started to fight the Japanese. In His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire, Sugata Bose writes: “Now that the fortunes in the war had changed, Aung San turned against the Japanese and offered his assistance to Viscount Slim. The Burmese resistance was being conducted on Burmese soil. The arrogance of the Japanese had not endeared them to their Burmese allies.”

However, it did not make sense for the Indians, whose objective was to end British rule in India, to switch sides. At least not yet.

An extraordinary sub-alliance

In this precarious situation, the Burmese and Indian nationalists appear to have pulled off a rather extraordinary sub-alliance while using one imperialist power against the other for their own specific objectives. According to Bose: “The Indians reached an understanding with the Burmese not to fight against each other.” Becka wrote that Subhas Bose, as Supreme Commander of the INA, rejected Japanese orders to put down the Burmese revolt – but he also did not join the AFPFL, and that a majority of the INA in Burma retained a neutral stance. On the ground, Indian nationalist commanders reported that “BIA rebels remained friendly towards the INA even after they turned against the Japanese”. [Lebra, Jungle Alliance]

After the war, in 1946, Aung San warmly received Sarat Chandra Bose, the barrister and Indian nationalist – also Subhas Bose’s elder brother – in Rangoon (now Yangon). The US historian Leonard Gordon wrote in Brothers Against the Raj: “Aung San mentioned the common cause of the Boses and himself of opposing British imperialism and promised Sarat Bose his cooperation. In fact, Aung San helped in the dismissal of the cases against the Indian civilians.”

Fay gives an amusing account of Aung San’s meeting with Slim in May 1945. Aung San’s “Japanese uniform of a Major-General, complete with sword” startled some of the officers, and he demanded the status of an allied, not subordinate, commander.

Most British considered Aung San and the Burmese nationalists who had joined the Japanese “traitors” – a curious label they pinned on anyone in their own colonies, including the Indians, who were fighting for liberation from British rule.

However, Aung San charmed Slim: “His intelligence, however, his excellent English, his good humor, above all the frankness of his manner, quite captivated Slim.”

Fay reports the following exchange from Slim’s account:

Slim: “Go on, Aung San. You only come to us because you see we are winning!”
Aung San: “It wouldn’t be much good coming to you if you weren’t.”

As Fay correctly points out in his note on sources: “Few can beat the British at the writing of military memoirs. What they may lose on the battlefield they will more than recover at the book stall.”

Grounded in history

One of the effects of this sort of history writing, not just from the point of view of victors, but also from the perspective of the larger, imperialist powers, is that the concerns and alliances of the many other groups caught up in the war become lost or obscured. Aung San’s position and objectives were related to Burma, and Burmese history.

In her Reith Lecture, Suu Kyi also explained her own choices in terms of her country’s history. Her “practical, political” choice of non-violence, she said, was “not quite the same as the ambiguous or pragmatic or mixed approaches to non-violence that have been attributed to Gandhi’s satyagraha or Martin Luther King’s civil rights. It is simply based on my conviction that we need to put an end to the tradition of regime change through violence, a tradition which has become the running sore of Burmese politics”.

Of the Burmese who had fled to Thailand and taken up arms against the junta, Suu Kyi said:

I have never condemned and shall never condemn the path they chose, because there had been ample cause for them to conclude the only way out of repressive rule was that of armed resistance. However, I myself rejected that path because I do not believe that it would lead to where I would wish my nation to go.

Those who chose armed struggle have not been able to dislodge the military rulers of Myanmar; neither has Suu Kyi through non-violent civil resistance. Ultimately, while Aung San and Aung San Suu Kyi appeared to make very different political choices, perhaps they were not as far apart as it might seem at first glance.

As Suu Kyi prepares to re-enter parliamentary politics in Myanmar within the limitations currently on offer, it might be worth remembering that, like her father, she is a political realist grounded in the nation’s history, and that they both made their decisions, not on moral grounds, but on “practical, political grounds”.

This article was published on the 115th anniversary of the birth of Indian revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose.

Sarmila Bose is Senior Research Associate, Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. She was a journalist in India for many years. She earned her degrees at Bryn Mawr College (History) and Harvard University (MPA and PhD in Political Economy and Government). She is also the grandniece of Subhas Chandra Bose.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.