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Burma's martyrs honoured despite ethnic troubles

The pain of rapid economic liberalisation and inter-communal violence is left aside on the anniversary of the death of Aung San Suu Kyi's father.

Martyrs' shrine
Shrine commemorating the Martyrs. Source: Getty

At the foot of a broad and ornate iron staircase leading to old apartments in Yangon lie near-identical businesses selling all the perceived daily necessities for those passing by. Both are staffed by longyi-clad, white-vested men who stare out in equal despondency at the monsoon rains. To the left of the staircase there are Buddhists, trading under a Theravada text above the door, and to the right they are Muslims, visibly fatigued by this time of day during the Ramadan fast.

That Buddhists and Muslims live such close and mirrored lives in Yangon defies the news reports of escalating inter-communal violence across Myanmar. Most notable has been the violence against Rohingya Muslims, who have lived within Burma's borders for many generations but are only recognised as Bangladeshi incomers with no rightful place here by many Burman Buddhists, and have been fleeing in great numbers to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to await the grim fate of those without documents in foreign lands.

The mutual hatred in Burma between the two communities seemed to escalate rapidly last year with bouts of deadly violence erupting in Rakhine State. Then in March of this year, in the central lakeside town of Meikhtila - the site of the killing of 20,000 Japanese troops at the end of World War II - a reported dispute between a Muslim gold trader and a Buddhist customer escalated into inter-communal tit-for-tat violence. The result was the brutal killing of 36 people, mostly the teenage pupils of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School, while a reported 200 police looked on – accused in some reports of being complicit in their inertia. A subsequent state of emergency imposed in the Mandalay region has only just been lifted  this weekend.

The political fallout from the bloodshed has been damaging, with Aung San Suu Kyi herself accused of failing to speak out against communal violence in Rakhine State as well as against a separate military siege in Kachin State. But despite the looming troubles between Burma's religious communities, an atmosphere of feverish celebration takes hold in Yangon as the city celebrates Martyrs' Day – a commemoration of the assassination of Burma's key independence leaders in 1947, amongst them Aung San Suu Kyi's revered father General Aung San.

At the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, crisp white-shirted men locked hands in a line, each with a tiny 'NLD' embroidered in red on the back of his Nehru collar. Behind them the crowd gathers fast until it stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. And there is only one reason for such a crowd to amass here in such a short time: The Lady is on her way. The vast crowd is reverential and adoring, quite different from the 100 or so dismayed villagers in Latpadaung who angrily confronted Suu Kyi back in March over land-grabs and the violent repression of protests in their village. At the knife edge of high-speed economic liberalisation in Burma, the villagers had publicly protested over the loss of their lands to make way for a vast China-backed copper mine – only to be gassed with phosphorous, leaving around 100 with burns and other injuries according to reports in the Myanmar press.

Suu Kyi chaired an inquiry into the crackdown and the proposed project which ultimately ruled that the copper mine plans should go ahead, although with some modifications to limit negative socio-economic and environmental effects. The perception is that Suu Kyi's priorities lie on the side of macro-level benefits for the nation as a whole, above the needs and wishes of local villagers who lament losing their land and gaining undesired mining jobs in return. While the march of economic liberalisation leaves its devastation, political liberalisation is also a rocky road. High-profile political meetings, such as the November 2012 Burma visit by Barack Obama and the recent diplomatic dates in Europe with Britain's David Cameron and France's Francois Hollande in July have been used to announce the intended release of political prisoners.

Most recently President Thein Sein promised to release all remaining prisoners of conscience by the end of this year, prompting many to ask "why not now?" - that they must languish for another six months in jail despite the effective recognition of their innocence raises suspicion that the drip-feed release of prisoners is simply used to gain political capital internationally. The NLD itself is troubled, below the level of Suu Kyi the party has drawn criticism for its gerontocratic internal structure, with the dominance of its old 'uncles' difficult to overcome and with only four women among the 130 members of its central executive committee. In spite of all of this, the visible and carnival-like political activity on Yangon's streets for Martyrs' Day is breathtaking considering the repression of the very recent past.

Back at the NLD headquarters no state security forces are to be seen, but on the leafy slopes of the Shwedagon Pagoda plenty of armed police lurk within reach, although it is unclear what sort of eventuality would bring them down among the crowds. The sinister air of Burma's troubled history is still perceptible. Then the car arrives, the Nehru-shirted human chains strain against the crowds and The Lady emerges, pristine and petite, and disappears inside to give a low-key speech to NLD members and gathered diplomats.

Later, she stands tall outside in her open vehicle and changes key, raised above the crowds she delivers a rousing speech, bringing a feverish charge to the atmosphere and to her gathered admirers. She may have to become accustomed to both reverence and resistance from the people now that her position is decidedly more ambiguous than when she was holding out against the military regime, but for today, she will only meet reverence in Yangon. She herself is the last to be swept away with the febrile optimism of the day. When asked how she felt about Burma at this positive moment, her voice took on a subdued tone and she replied: "I think what we need right now is peace".