Sixty years after independence, Myanmar remembers in secret

( AFP ) - Pausing in front of the fence around Yangon's main park, a man points through the iron bars to show his two young children the statue inside.

"This is Myanmar's independence leader General Aung San. He was a very honourable man," he said.

The children gazed at the 10-foot (three-meter) statue and started to ask a question when their father hushed them.

"I will tell you all about him once we get home," he said.

Although Kandawgyi Park is one of the most popular public spaces in Myanmar's main city of Yangon, almost no one takes the path that leads by the statue or reads the inscription, "General Aung San, the leading star of the Union."

The man credited with winning Myanmar's independence from Britain, 60 years ago on January 4, is now most famous overseas for being the father of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- the Nobel peace prize winner who has spent 12 years under house arrest for her efforts to end decades of military dictatorship.

She is so despised by the ruling junta that few are willing to speak publicly about her father, even though Aung San is revered as a hero for leading the battle against British colonisers and Japanese occupiers during World War II.

He is also remembered for uniting the nation's many ethnic groups in the struggle for independence, which Aung San never lived to see.

He was assassinated at the age of 32, along with eight of his top lieutenants in July 1947, in a plot blamed on a rival politician who is now seen as a national traitor.

Even the military leadership remembers Aung San's sacrifice on the anniversary of their deaths, which is called Martyrs' Day.

But since his daughter achieved prominence during a 1988 pro-democracy uprising, few people are willing to mention Aung San in public for fear of angering the junta and its ubiquitous informers.

"We never forget our independence leader. He's always in our hearts and minds. People just dare not to show their love openly because they don't want any problems," Khin, a 30-year-old company staffer, told AFP.

"He had very high hopes for our country's future. I'll tell my infant daughter about him and his struggles for our country's independence," she added.

For those old enough to remember independence, the upcoming anniversary brings a certain sense of loss at what might have been had Aung San survived to lead the new nation.

Mya Mya, a retired government officer, was only 11 when Burma became a country that was seen as far more developed than most of its neighbours.

Sixty years later, the nation now known as Myanmar is among the poorest in the world, hobbled after 45 years of military dictatorship and disastrous economic policies.

"We all love Aung San like a father. That's why we were so hurt when he died," Mya Mya said, her eyes watering at the memory of his death.

"I don't understand politics, but I often wonder what might have happened if he had lived to see independence," she added.

Aung San had succeeded in cobbling together an alliance with Myanmar's ethnic minorities, many of whom had seen independence as an opportunity to win their own sovereign homelands.

After his death, that alliance quickly fell apart and the nation was wracked by a score of armed insurgencies across the country.

The military used the rebellions as a pretext to seize control over the government in 1962, and has ruled with an iron fist ever since.

Aung San Suu Kyi has emerged as the leader of peaceful resistance to military rule. Although she was only two when her father was killed, her stature has been built in large part because of the similarities the public sees in them.

She led her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to victory in elections in 1990, although the junta has never recognised the result.

When Buddhist monks led protests against the government in September, their movement was galvanised by a single, brief appearance by Aung San Suu Kyi to greet them at the gate of the home where she is detained.

Many here see her leadership as a continuation of her father's, although the junta has tried to diminish both their roles while building up its own image through relentless propaganda extolling the virtues of the military.

In the privacy of their homes, many families are quietly passing along their own unfiltered history of independence.

"I love General Aung San unconditionally, because my teacher taught us he was the father of our independence from Britain," said Pyi Sone, an eight-year-old boy.

"But I have never seen his picture," he said.

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