19 July 1947
Today in 1947, Bogyoke Aung San, ‘the father of modern day Myanmar’ and a committed parliamentary socialist, was shot dead by paramilitaries under orders of Burma’s former prime minister, U Saw, who had recently received weapons supplied by British army officers. Aung San, who, at just 32 years old, was the acting prime minister in all but name, had been attending a meeting of the country’s Executive Council, when four armed men in uniforms jumped from an army jeep, pushed past ill-trained Burmese guards and sprayed the council chamber with gunfire, killing him and six other ministers. According to a report by a British journalist, ‘blood splattered the walls, and ran in rivers across the floor.’1
British businesses operating in Burma had feared that Aung San’s socialist convictions would threaten their interests, while elements within the British army had been concerned that Aung San might seek autonomous development for Burma by playing off London against Moscow. In January, Aung San had announced that the Burmese people wanted full independence and would not accept dominion status within the Commonwealth. Winston Churchill and many others in the British political establishment made no secret of the fact that they loathed him.2 It, therefore, came as little surprise when it was learned that U Saw had been having close discussions with John Bingley, an official at the British Council, as to how he might be able to protect British companies.3
After the killing, three British army officers, two captains and a major, fell under suspicion for their close association with U Saw, and one of them, Captain Diane, testified in court that the former prime minister was already heavily armed at the time of the assassination, and that he had been expecting another delivery of five lorry loads of arms from someone he believed to be a British officer. The confession was felt to be so damaging that Major General Hubert Rance, the British governor, tried to have it censored. Rance, however, didn’t dare to intervene to prevent Saw’s conviction for the crime, and as the condemned man awaited his execution, one of his last letters was addressed to Bingley, noting sourly ‘I took a grave risk as advised.’4 Bingley, however, was never charged with any offence and was allowed to leave the country. Like that of Saw’s other fellow British contacts, any evidence of the role he might have played was expunged from history.5 A key question remains unanswered: was this merely a crime enabled by corrupt elements within the British army in Burma and official incompetence or indifference, or was it planned as a political coup either by rogue reactionary British officials or by British agents operating with official connivance ?
- ‘Burmese police find arms dump,’ The Northern Whig, 22 July 1947 p. 1.
- ‘Who Really Killed Aung San ?’ BBC 2 documentary, 19 July 1997.
- Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper ‘Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire,’ Allen Lane, London, 2007 p. 319 and Gehan Wijewardene book review of Kin Oung, ‘Who killed Aung San ?’ Burma library accessed online at http://www.burmalibrary.org/reg.burma/archives/199403/msg00087.html
- Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Ibid pp. 219-320.
- Gehan Wijewardene book review of Kin Oung, ‘Who killed Aung San ?’ Burma library accessed online at http://www.burmalibrary.org/reg.burma/archives/199403/msg00087.html
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