On 19th July, descendants of the nine leaders of the pre-independence government slain in 1947, will gather at The Martyrs Mausoleum to commemorate one of the saddest days in Myanmar’s contemporary history. U Hla Kyi, the youngest son of the martyred Minister for Education, U Razak, meets with Ben Hopkins to share memories of his childhood.
U Hla Kyi was only two years and eight months old when his father was assassinated in Rangoon’s Secretariat Building on the morning of 19 July, 1947; Too young to remember his father’s embrace or clearly recall the atrocious massacre that shocked the world and fractured the country. But of the years that shaped his childhood, U Hla Kyi’s memory is razor sharp. “As a young child I noticed people always treated me differently, very kindly” he says. “It was only when I was older that I realised it was because I was the son of a martyr”.
The assassins, planned by a rival group and led by Galon U Saw, were caught and sentenced on 30 December, 1947.
Beside U Hla Kyi, a framed portrait of his father takes pride of place on the mantelpiece in his spacious apartment in Yangon. The picture was taken shortly before his assassination and portrays a 49-year-old, married father of three with strong features and a serene expression.
“The fight for liberty is the fight for peace. And like peace, liberty is indivisible” U Razak, June 1947.
U Razak was the son of an Indian father, Sheik Abdul Rahman, a police inspector, and a Burmese Buddhist woman Nyein Hla. While his brothers and sisters chose to be Buddhists, he maintained the Muslim name Razak, in honour of his father. Although nominally Muslim, U Razak was a secularist who deeply loved Burma and encouraged unity in diversity.
Staunchly nationalistic, he found himself driven to the cause of Burmese independence from a young age. As a Bachelor of Arts (BA) student at Rangoon University he took part in the 1920 demonstrations against the British colonial education system. The experience led him to demonstratively switch to a BA course with the alternative Council of National Education, established by Burmese nationalists. He graduated with the council’s BA degree, and carried the academic title with pride.
A commitment to education for all would be the golden thread that would run through U Razak’s life. At the relatively young age of 23 he established the Central National High School in Mandalay and became headmaster a year later in 1922. Much has been written about U Razak’s life by his former students, many of whom went on to become teachers and professors through the 1940s and 50s, when Burma boasted one of the highest literacy rates in Asia.
Although he was a Muslim, he taught his Buddhist high school students Pali, the language of Buddhism. U Hla Kyi remembers anecdotes about Razak’s time as a headmaster. “Every morning before class the students would respect Buddha. If someone missed this he would tap them gently with a stick,” he says. “He was so kind hearted. As a headmaster he treated his students like his children. I was very blessed to have had such a father.”
Alongside academia, U Hla Kyi tells of how his father, a fine footballer, promoted sport at school as a way to develop character and a sense of fair play. He also introduced the sport of boxing into Burma. “The British (occupiers) were bullies, they oppressed us” says U Hla Kyi, warming to the theme. “So my father said (to the British) come to the ring for a fair fight, with rules and regulations, that’s why he introduced boxing”.
Amongst the world class boxers Burma produced was “Kyar” Ba Nyein, who represented his country in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Another was a man named Chit Lon. “He was very strong,” says U Hla Kyi, laughing at the memory. “One time a British army guy came to the ring and said ‘who is this guy Chit Lon. I want to fight him’. He had no idea he was talking to Chit Lon. So Chit Lon said, OK, come back tomorrow at 3pm. When he returned Chit Lon turned to the crowd and said, do you want me to knock him out in the 1st, 2nd or 3rd round?” Needless to say, the British guy was flattened in a demonstration of fair play.
While the British would be remembered by many as bullies, he describes the Japanese occupation (1943 – 45) as worse. “They were brutal. No discipline”.
Another incident from this period testifies to the character of U Razak, who was detained by the Japanese occupation forces along with other Burmese nationalists. Upon hearing the news, General Aung San ordered one of his men, Khin Nyo, to organize a rescue plan. Khin Nyo made contact with U Razak in jail and briefed him on the plan. U Razak rejected the plan because it did not include his jailed comrades. “If you rescued me alone and if I followed you, I would be regarded as a selfish person and a traitor by the group,” he reportedly told Khin Nyo. “My name would be tarnished. As it is, my conscience cannot accept this arrangement.”
Khin Nyo later wrote: “[His face] showed clearly that he wasn’t trying to be heroic, nor was he thinking of his honour. It was just pure selflessness and the nobility of spirit on his part. It was then that I got a glimpse of his true character.”
The decision nearly cost U Razak his life. When allied bombs hit Mandalay and fire swept through the prison, U Razak was rescued by his students.
After the Japanese surrender,
U Razak became a leader of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League in Mandalay. When the governor of Burma, Sir Hubert Rance, asked Gen Aung San and his AFPFL to submit names for the executive council, U Razak was proposed for inclusion in the cabinet as representative of Upper Burma by all Mandalay-based communities led by Buddhist monks.
Martyrs Day remembered
Burma changed forever on the day U Razak was assassinated alongside General Aung San, five of his cabinet colleagues and two assistants. “Only four men escaped the killing”, says Hla Kyi. Many believe Myanmar would have developed into a strong democracy had the massacre never occurred.
“At the time the communists were very strong,” says U Hla Kyi, whom like many people believes the British were behind the killings. “But Aung San knew them very well. He knew which communist ideas were good for us, which were bad and which were useless. If the communists went underground he would call them back. He was a very intelligent, very learned man”.
This year on 19 July, Gen Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, will join U Hla Kyi and many others to lay wreaths and commemorate the martyred heroes at Yangon’s Martyrs Mausoleum. But this year shall be different, with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy representing the first civilian government since the military coup of 1962.
No doubt memories of attending Martyrs Day through the decades will be running through the emotions of U Hla Kyi, as he joins his lifelong friends to lay wreaths.
“I’ll never forget when I was 11 years old”, he says. “It was remarkable. Very nice. All the widows’ families were invited to the Martyrs Day remembrance. The president (Win Maung) came in a state owned black Rolls Royce. He said, “How are you?” to all of us. Then he laid one wreath to the left of the tomb and one to the right. Then he talked to each of us, saying if you have a problem contact me. Then he went off in his Rolls”. On another occasion he recalls President Ne Win driving Princess Alexandra of England through the streets in a cow cart.
Rifling through a cabinet next to the picture of his father, U Hla Kyi pulls out an envelope of photos from Martyrs Days past. One features a very young looking King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit of Thailand, taken in 1958, paying their respect to the martyrs. He also shows me a picture of his older brother and sister and talks of his career as a geologist and his years selling vintage cars. “The government once had a black Rolls Royce and a bullet proof Mercedes, they both disappeared, no one knows where”, he says, laughing in bemusement.
Less amusing is when he talks of the systematic and deliberate destruction of education, post the military coup in 1962. “We were top in Southeast Asia” he says. “In every aspect. Our teachers and lecturers were very good. And our politicians were very clean”.
As a result, all three of his children were sent overseas to receive the kind of education that his father, U Razak, spent his life working for. One now practices as a Medical Doctor in the USA, another lives in Singapore and the third now works at a bank in Yangon. He’s visited them all many times in their respective countries. “Now they have good lives. But what I want most is to live here, in Yangon, with all my children”.
For the future of his country, U Hla Kyi expresses optimism and belief in the new leadership. Echoing the words he used earlier to describe Gen Aung San, he says, “Suu Kyi is very learned, honest and bright. People love her and listen to her. I think things will be fine”.