General Aung San came back from final negotiations on independence for Myanmar with Prime Minister Attlee in London in 1947. 6 months before the planned celebration of independence, General Aung San held a cabinet meeting of the government. Political enemies assassinated the General, one believes that it was authorized by the previous President. During the cabinet meeting a group of assassins armed with automatic weapons stormed into the meeting room and shot all dead. One member of the government was sick that day and therefore escaped. He became the first Prime Minister of independent Myanmar. The perpetrators of the assassination were executed. The leaders with moral authority to set the right course for the nation were lost, however, and competing political groups went underground and a long period of unrest and fighting begun until in 1962 the Generals took power. A regime suppressing all human rights and leading to thousands of its own citizens being killed remained in power more or less continuously until 2011.
The brave people of Myanmar made one upraising after the other. One of the largest started among the students of the technical academy in Yangon on the date 08.08.88. Thousands of students and other parts of the population were killed, the government was dissolved, the military were fighting for political survival. Nobody knew where this would end.
This is the view we had from the rooftop restaurant in Yangon where I was having dinner with Tha Sein, the President of Myanmar YMCA yesterday night. He was telling me a fascinating story about bravery and courageous leadership in times of deep crisis and conflict in his country. Retired from a brilliant career in German companies Krupp and Daimler/Chrysler he is an impressive personality, and at 79 years of age he is strong and full of energy like a young man.
At the time of the upraising in 1988 Tha was President of the YMCA in his home city of beautiful Mandalay. After months of fighting and unrest the population was suffering severely, people were starving.
All religious groups came together in Mandalay in an interfaith collaboration to try to assist the people. The YMCA participated, but said: “We are a minority here, and we have no ambition to lead, only to help.” But the Buddhists said: “We have no experience in dealing with foreigners, with embassies and government, the YMCA has that, so you lead us!”
The meeting appointed Tha Sein as their leader. This was an extremely dangerous position, he could be seen by the military as a part of the oposition, as a rebel. You could get killed for much less than that.
“I was only 45 years old and I was nervous. Suddenly I was called to meet with the regime. I found myself in a room with all the well known Generals, staring suspiciously at me. They believed I was a part of the rebellion. Other attacked me of collaborating with the regime. From whatever angle you decided to see me, I had landed in a very dangerous position.
Because of the interfaith network I had a list of the poorest of the poor with me in my pocket, a list of those in badly need of help. The military were astonished. They could not get a list like that from their own commanders. The Generals started to believe me and all of a sudden I was told to lead this assistance work. But I am only an ordinary citizen, I said, what can I do? They told me that I should put up the flag of the interfaith community on my car, and they would instruct their officers to let my car pass through any check points and I was allowed to drive through red light if need be. I was shocked to find myself backed both by my Buddhist and Muslim brothers and sisters as well as by the military. At the end we got help from embassies and businesses, from abroad and from inland, and we were able to get rice and other food to our people in need.”
I am looking over the lights of Yangon city as my friend is sharing his dramatic story. This is another amazing part of YMCA history that has never been recorded or told. It is a story of the bravest of YMCA leadership in the toughest of times, when lives were at stake. Because of leadership like this, the YMCA is deeply respected and held in high regard from all different corners of society. PresidenTha Sein underlines to me that he just followed his values: Stick to your principles and always be truthful.
Brilliant view of the main Pagoda of Yangon in the far distance while we are leaving Yangon on the new highway to Nay Pyu Taw, the capital of the country. The capital was moved from Yangon by the military regime to create a safe haven for themselves. We are in for a 6 hours bus ride today.
What the regime feared most of all, was a lady in Yangon, the daughter of General Aung San. From the Pagoda in the photo above she gave her famous speech during the upraisal from 1988. That gave her more than 15 years in house arrest. In 1990 the regime felt forced to offer free elections. Aung San Suu Kyi won 95% of the votes. The regime just did not react to the result, did not accept it, and Aung San Suu Kyi was back in house arrest and her party was made illegal by constitution.
The daughter of the General, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was as brave as her father and survived several attacks on her life.
After 50 years of dictatorship a certain fatigue reached the regime. They seemed in a strange way to have gotten tired of themselves. The President initiated reforms himself, elections were held in 2012 and Aung San Suu Kyi became a member of Parliament.
In 2015 free elections were held for national leadership and Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won a landslide victory. For constitutional reasons she cannot take formal power herself, but she is the factual leader of the government. Still the power is shared with the military, but significant changes have taken place and there is a great optimisme and hopes for the near future, even if Aung San Suu Kyi herself has expressed frustration over the slow pace of reform in Myanmar.