The Burmese political leader Aung San (1915-1947) was the driving force behind the nationalist movement that won Burma (now Myanmar) its freedom from British colonial rule in 1948.

Born in the township of Natmauk on Feb. 13, 1915, Aung San was the son of fairly well-off parents. He graduated from one of the high schools set up by Burmese nationalists to demonstrate their independence of foreign-provided education, and he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Rangoon. As a university student, he was extremely active politically, serving as president of the Rangoon University Students' Union, breeding ground of nationalist leaders, and as one of the founders of the All-Burma Students' Union.

Editor of Oway, the Rangoon University student magazine, Aung San was expelled from the university in 1936 for printing a slashing personal attack on a college official. The attack had no connection whatsoever with mounting nationalist demands against the British colonial presence but led nonetheless to the 1936 students' strike, the major shaping event of pre-World War II Burmese nationalism.

Like various other Burmese nationalists of the period, Aung San wrote well in both Burmese and English. He was founding member of the anticolonial Red Dragon Book Club (together with U Nu, later to be independent Burma's first premier) and a member of the editorial staff of the only English-language newspaper in the prewar years, New Burma.

Aung San was elected general secretary of the extreme nationalist Thakin (Our Own Masters) party in 1938, and he became the leading young nationalist before World War II and one of the two or three key Burmese political figures in the country. He helped to found the All-Burma Peasants League and, together with Dr. Ba Maw, established the Freedom Bloc to present a united front against the continuation of the British colonial presence. For such activities he was frequently interrogated and detained by the authorities.

Fight for Independence

Aung San went underground in late 1940 to escape arrest by the British and subsequently left the country surreptitiously to make contact with Japanese officials in occupied southeastern China. He traveled to Japan, then returned to Burma to lay the groundwork for subsequent Japanese-Burmese nationalist cooperation against the British.

When he returned to Japan in early 1941, he took with him 29 fellow young nationalists, none of them as prominent politically as himself. He feared that the departure of more prominent figures would arouse British suspicion. Aung San and these others were to lead the so-called Burma Independence Army into Burma from Thailand in 1942, in cooperation with the Japanese, and gain Burmese immortality as the "Thirty Comrades."

The Thirty Comrades were subsequently to rank as the greatest heroes of the Burmese nationalist revolution. Many were to play major political roles in postcolonial Burma, including Gen. Ne Win, who unseated elected premier U Nu in 1958 and 1962 and was Burma's head of government during most of the 1960s.

Suspicious of Japanese intentions toward Burma almost from the start, Aung San nonetheless accepted command of the Burma Defense Army, heretofore the Burma Independence Army. When Burmese "independence" was proclaimed in 1943, Aung San, who had been made a major general, was minister of war in the collaborationist Ba Maw government together with almost all of the other young nationalists. Despite his official position, however, he repeatedly spoke out against the sham character of Burma's alleged independence.

In August 1944 Aung San was the principal moving force behind the establishment of the Anti-Fascist Organization, the clandestine resistance force that subsequently became the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) and Burma's governing party for the first 10 years of independence after 1948. In March 1945 he led the Burma Defense Army, newly named the Patriot Burmese Forces, into open rebellion against Japan and subsequently into cooperation with the returning British military forces.

Elected president of the AFPFL in 1945 and reelected the subsequent year at a convention attended by 100,000 persons, the youthful Aung San emerged from World War II the best known and most popular of the Burmese political leaders. His demand to Britain for early independence was backed by the support of the overwhelming majority of his politically conscious countrymen. The British governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, however, regarded Aung San as a traitor and war criminal. Sir Reginald's failure to reach agreement with the Burmese leader led to his replacement by Sir Hubert Rance, with whom Aung San quickly agreed on the composition of an interim government to help rule Burma until independence and to prepare for such independence. Aung San was premier-designate of the soon-to-be independent government.

In January 1947 Aung San, now Burma's acknowledged political leader, led the Burmese delegation to London for independence talks with British premier Clement Attlee. On his return in February 1947 Aung San successfully negotiated the Panglong Agreement, which provided for the participation of various frontier-area peoples in the new Union of Burma, as the emergent Burmese federal state was to be called.

On July 19, 1947—six months before the coming of independence—Aung San, only 32, and most of the other top nationalist leaders of the country were shot to death by henchmen of an insanely jealous political rival, prewar premier U Saw. The anniversary of the assassinations, known as Martyrs Day, is Myanmar's most solemn national holiday.

Further Reading on Aung San

A favorable picture of Aung San is U Maung Maung, ed., Aung San of Burma (1962), a compilation of sketches by persons with whom Aung San worked in the cause of Burmese nationalism. U Maung Maung, Burma's Constitution (1959; 2d ed. 1961), is another sympathetic work that places Aung San and his contribution to Burmese independence in an appropriate historical context. Frank N. Trager, Burma, from Kingdom to Republic: A Historical and Political Analysis (1966), provides an excellent historical account of the emergence of modern Myanmar, with suitable attention to Aung San's role.