Robert Anderson describes a meeting three days before Aung San’s assassination and a surprising request.
Editor’s Note: This post’s publication coincides with the anniversary of Aung San’s assassination on July 19, 1947. We welcome submissions that expand upon this effort to inquire into Aung San’s life and legacy.
Aung San is normally depicted as austere, awkward, and slightly humourless: there is little public evidence to the contrary. Perhaps we need a wider lens to see more of his personality more clearly than these simplistic portrayals? But 74 years after his sudden death, from where will that arise? Could there be a hidden cache of evidence somewhere? Historians live for faint possibilities like that but also live with scepticism.
Aung San’s intermediary with British power in London during his final year (1946-47) was Governor Hubert Rance in Rangoon. Rance was Mountbatten’s former deputy but relatively inexperienced with Burma’s politics: he was learning his way ‘on the job’ while Governor when he began in September 1946. It is through Aung San’s relationship with Rance that we receive occasional glimmers of a different Aung San. Rance reported to London that Aung San would occasionally drop by quietly in the evening to discuss unsolved issues, for example, an impending strike of the police organized by his communist colleagues. To my surprise, Rance actually listened to Aung San and his knowledgeable ally Tin Tut, even in the boring [his term] Governor’s Executive Council meetings. After all, Tin Tut was an Indian Civil Service (ICS) cadre, and Rance was not, Tin Tut was educated at Cambridge and Rance was not, Tin Tut went to the Royal Sandhurst Military Academy, and Rance did not, Tin Tut was an expert on imperial finance, and Rance was not. Aung San could only understand half of what was going on in London without Tin Tut. A small fraction of the other half could be understood through Rance. Pertinently, Tin Tut was the shadow Minister of Finance in the Governor’s Executive Council, enabling Rance to learn from Aung San and Tin Tut about corruption in his own government, activities which were enabled by his own staff in the Civil Supplies Board and Road Transport Administration projects. Those private Aung San-Rance conversations were not appropriate for the hard-line anti-British leader he was expected to be, not at least in the opinions of the people in his Cabinet who were criticizing him for showing rightist tendencies. He was expected to show distance, not proximity.
We see another side of Aung San in the surprising request Aung San made to Hubert Rance just before the tragic day of 19 July 1947. This request makes sense when you know that Aung San accompanied his ally known as ‘ICS Tin Tut’ to Buckingham Palace seven months earlier for lunch on 24 January 1947. Why would a radical anti-monarchist anti-imperialist ex-communist like Aung San go to the Palace? He went to the Palace to witness his very Establishment-oriented friend and ally ICS Tin Tut receive an Order of the Commander of the British Empire from the King himself, undoubtedly arranged by Louis Mountbatten. Apparently, they were served more than cucumber sandwiches! Aung San had previously revealed to Rance, during one of their evening conversations, that he could not focus on the serious questions being levelled at him at the lunch because he was so intent on selecting the correct fork for the various courses flowing by, and he had to judge which fork to choose, not by asking but by carefully and unobtrusively observing others.
The above image is important because U Saw —a former Prime Minister during the Japanese occupation – would be hanged for his role in the killing of Aung San standing to his right. He was wearing dark glasses because five months earlier, in 1946, a bomb exploded in his car with the intent to kill him but just nearly blinded him. And on the right, smiling, is Tin Tut ICS, an accomplished administrator in the Governor’s Executive Council and Aung San’s key ally: assassins had intended to include Tin Tut in their July 1947 attack, but he was unexpectedly absent in London. But he, too, would be assassinated by a car bomb in September 1948.
It is also known that the wives of Aung San, Hubert Rance, and Tin Tut knew each other: they were Khin Kyi, married to General Aung San, Than Tin married to Tin Tut, and Mary Noel Rance, married to Governor Hubert Rance. I imagine their familiarity came about after Rance’s abrupt elevation as Governor in September 1946; would they not often have been thrown together at boring receptions where men like former PM U Saw strutted around in silk like peacocks, drowning these ladies in shop-talk? The family/class background and ages of young Aung San and older Tin Tut meant they came from different worlds, and so they and their wives had radically different experiences during the war: Tin Tut served with the Governor of Burma’s Office in India while Aung San prepared for battle in the barracks, as a soldier under Japanese supervision, only seeing his new  bride occasionally. Since I am not a Burmese historian, I have no information about what the other two wives thought of Madame Mary Noel Rance, but she appears to have made an impression on Aung San himself. Like their husbands, they were often on stage, were carefully observed, and probably had hilarious critiques of their men’s worlds if only we knew them. However, we do know something unique and haunting, curiously from Rance himself:
Tin Tut’s wife must have told Aung San’s wife, Daw Khin Kyi, about the visit of their husbands to the palace when Tin Tut returned to Rangoon. Perhaps there is a [lost] photograph of that lunch? The wedding date for Philip Mountbatten and Princess Elizabeth had just been announced in early July, and undoubtedly Aung San and/or his wife Khin Kyi heard it on the radio or read it in the newspaper. Was Aung San channelling her desire to go to the wedding, as well as his? For him, it would demonstrate that he had not given up on the Commonwealth [or Britain], although he had already sworn to his communist allies that Burma would not join it. He had just learned how desperate Burma’s financial predicament actually was (owing large sums to India for war services), therefore such a visit to London for the wedding before independence just might pay off. But I also sense Aung San’s intrigue to see royal pomp and circumstance up close and to engage in some diplomacy on the side.
I used to visit Bogyoke Aung San’s residence in Bahan when I stayed nearby; as a museum, it was sometimes open and sometimes closed, depending on the rise and fall of his state reputation. I rode in taxis with his face hanging from the mirror on an early currency note, and in taxis without that note, depending on their risk-taking; it was an offence to display that piece of currency because of the face. I attended (invited by word of mouth only) the first excited public display of paintings inspired by the Bogyoke himself, at an upstairs gallery on Pansodan Street, perhaps about 2007 or 2008. Censors did not approve of paintings, photos, or images of him or his daughter. Aung San’s lovely residence had been the house of one of the early mayors of Rangoon. I took morning jogs down the long winding road which reached it from Kandawgyi lake. I now realize that it was from here where he drove (or was driven) to the office at the Secretariat on 19 July 1947 and that those few books I noted on the bookshelf in the spartan sitting room were his last books, perhaps where he sat sipping morning tea while his two-year-old daughter Suu Kyi played around on the floor that fateful day. That living room had been restored like a tomb.
Having long known about the assassination, I only recently started learning about the ways he lived by reading the obscure footnotes to documents in Tinker’s massive volumes and previously secret files in London. I learned that Nehru thought Aung San was too ill-dressed to negotiate with the British PM in London and dispatched him to his own tailor in Delhi to be re-suited before his departure. I learned the house produced two family tragedies, the deaths of Aung San and five years later of their young son Aung San Lin who accidentally drowned in an ornamental pool in the garden. The result was that Daw Khin Kyi opted to leave the house in 1953.
I too had previously accepted the common image of Aung San: austere, awkward, and humourless. In 1947, he had only recently and reluctantly admitted to his 1942 bayonetting of an uncooperative resisting village headman (as he was trained to do by his Japanese officers on Hainan Island): he had thus already proved his ruthless side. Moreover, as a former self-declared communist, he had other leaders closely watching him, ready to pounce on any pro-imperialist, pro-British, pro-monarchist, pro-business tendencies. To most of those self-proclaimed leftist men, a royal wedding would be, in theory, the height of bourgeois decadence. Aung San’s uninhibited and extremely private performance that night at the Governor’s residence was a surprising dimension of his personality, a startling revelation. Cracking his fingers on the Governor’s wife’s bedside, telling jokes, then asking for an invitation to a royal wedding 9000 kms away? He remains an enigma, like the face on the currency.
Robert Anderson is professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He is working on a book entitled Guerrilla Warfare and the Anthropologists: Edmund Leach and Noel Stevenson on the China-Burma-India frontiers 1939-1953.