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The architect of Burma’s freedom


AUNG SAN AND THE STRUGGLE FOR BURMESE INDEPENDENCE, by Angelene Naw. Silkworm Books; Chiang Mai, 2001, 284 pp., 595 baht. (Also available through University of Washington Press, $17.50)

Aung San, the pillar of the struggle for Burmese independence and immensely popular during those most turbulent years, is probably proudly watching the equally impressive career of his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, from above. The latter’s fame has to some extent overshadowed her father’s legend, which makes this biography precious in many ways.

Published by Silkworm Books, a Chiang Mai publisher specializing in Southeast Asian topics, “Aung San and the Struggle for Burmese Independence” is an impressive scholarly study based on meticulous research of mainly Burmese sources. As the title suggests, author Angelene Naw focuses largely on Aung San’s involvement in the dual struggle for independence, from both the Japanese and the British, and touches only briefly on the subject’s private life.

Assassinated at the age of 32 by political rivals, Aung San was a man of integrity, intensity and single-minded dedication to the goal of independence for Burma. He commanded general respect not only within the Burmese community, but also within every other ethnic minority. In the words of the author, he was “the only leader in modern Burmese history to forge a peaceful and voluntary unity among the different ethnic groups.” Combining realism with moderation, projecting the benefits of unity, he urged every group to come together: “We will have our differences, but, to take one example, if we are threatened with external aggression, we must fight back together. . . .” Had he lived longer, the next chapters of Burmese history might have been very different.

The obvious admiration of the author for her subject is not only justified, but also convincingly projected through her astute use of source materials and interviews, inspiring admiration in the reader for Aung San in an unforced and natural way. The book suffers, however, from the lack of an interview with Suu Kyi, who no doubt could have provided extra insights into the personality of her father. There are some quotations from a short text of the former but an interview would have offered more intimacy and vigor. More bibliographical references related to Japan’s involvement in Burma than the two or three offered by the author would also have made a welcome addition.

But there is plenty that is of interest here, particularly the passages concerning the delaying tactics and tergiversations of some British governors and officials toward the end of Burma’s struggle for independence, and conversely, the inspiring insights of Lord Mountbatten, who felt a special affinity to Aung San. Once again, we witness the vital importance of human chemistry among the various protagonists of our destinies, the nefarious and destructive consequences in cases of negative communication and the positive effect in cases where understanding and compassion prevail.