Aung San of Burma, by Aung San Sun Kyi
Well, at least you can say that this book is honest. Aung San Suu Kyi, the famed Novel Prize-winning heroine of Democracy in Burma, wrote this short biography about her father in honor of someone considered one of the heroes of Burmese independence. One cannot fault her for bias–it was not a flattering account as far as I am concerned.
The book is divided into six chapters: Early Influences, Student Politics and the Thakins, Alliance With The Japanese, Resistance, Negotiations With The British, and Achieving Independence, along with a very short conclusion. The portrayal of Aung San himself is of an idealistic person who was straightforward, without guile, and a socialist pragmatist in the mold of U.S. President Obama. Burmese politics is shown to have been fractious and divided from the beginning, inviting the influence of the military from the start, and showing a ferocious divide between fascist elements and socialists, including a large amount of out-and-out Communists.
Aung San seems like an ascetic for most of the book, his marriage straightforward with a short courtship and no apparent interest in fooling around beforehand (he was upset when the Japanese gave him a female companion during his training missions). About the best thing that can be said for him is that he was honest. His politics were radical. His sincerity of purpose did not translate into an ability to bridge the chasms of Burmese political divisions. He made some major tactical blunders, including inviting the Japanese to invade during World War II and hoping that they would grant Burma independence sooner than the British. Clearly that was a blunder.
About the most distressing part of Aung San’s politics, as far as I am concerned, aside from the act that he was an extreme leftist, was the fact that his ideal for Burma was for Burmese nationalism and no freedom for the minority peoples. If Aung San (and his daughter) represent the most moderate elements of democratic opinion within Burma (as seems likely) then we ought to be of no illusions that the Burmese have any hope as a nation. Aung San had no goals in allowing the Kachin, Shan, Karen, Naga, Mon, or any other people of Burma to have an independent destiny apart from Burma, and his hostility to the British “white paper” on Burma was for precisely the reason that it established a plebiscite for the minorities to decide whether to be a part of an independent Burma or to choose their own destiny.
Therefore, Aung San would have been just another left-wing technocrat ruling over a prison of nations, much like the Russians or Chinese, talking the rhetoric of liberty while keeping restive minorities in check. Would he have been more pragmatic and less rapine than the current military dictatorship? Probably. Would his daughter be better than the current corrupt military leadership? Almost certainly. Would she be a leader up to the standard of a moderate and democratic West that sought for self-determination for the hill tribes? Probably not. Her father certainly was no hero for the minority peoples of Burma, and we can credit Aung San Suu Kyi for writing an honest, warts-and-all account of her father. Few people could write about their fathers with such candor. And such candor ought to be appreciated, even if it is on behalf of people who are less than honorable.
On the positive side as well it should be said that Aung San is presented as both a devoutly religious Buddhist, and someone who was ambitious enough to overcome a somewhat marginal background in the backwoods. That said, despite the book’s attempts to portray Aung San as a populist hero, he comes off as just another would-be independence hero of a nation whose socialism and nationalism failed to look out for the nation he sought to lead. Worse, he died a martyr, before the folly of his Burmese nationalism became apparent to the whole world, as it is in now, giving his daughter some credit with the Burmese people as a national heroine that she might not have on her own merits alone. Unless Burma can develop some better leaders and overcome the scourge of Burmese nationalism at the expense of its many restive minorities, its future looks extremely grim.