Located on the north side of Kandawgyi lake is a park that has held a statue of King Edward VII, a mound of ‘victory earth’, and now a statue of General Aung San.
Edward was the first son of Queen Victoria. Given the length of her reign, he spent 59 years as heir to the throne. Edward did his best to enjoy it: he was notorious for his drinking, gambling and general social carousing, as well as for a string of affairs. One of these was with the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill, the man who brought about the end of Burmese independence. We previously discussed this and admired the legendary beauty of his wife here.
In 1875 Edward made a grand tour of India, but did not visit Burma. Our first royal visit would be in 1905 by his son, George (who was present for the opening of the Victoria Memorial Park, now the zoo – which we’ll talk about in an upcoming article). Edward finally became king in 1902, but died of a smoking related illness in 1910. At some point in the next few years the statue was built in this northern section of Dalhousie Park as a memorial.
The Royal Academy has the below photograph of the statue’s detail, though the associated record suggests that this was an initial model for the statue, rather than the final piece.
In the 1930s the park was renamed Aung Zeya, the original name of Alaungpaya, the 18th century leader who reunified Burma and led it through several wars that defined the modern boundaries of the country. The statue of Edward was removed by the Japanese after they took control of the city in 1942. They replaced it with a new monument of ‘victory earth’. Soil was brought from Alaungpaya’s capital, Shwebo, with various ceremonies held along its route south. It was interred in the monument around the end of that year.
The additional columns and arches were likely removed at the same time. The central arch bears the British coat of arms, and the general European aesthetic of the wider monument may have also been unwelcome.
After independence the park was renamed again for Aung San, and a statue of him replaced the Japanese monument. Interestingly, the statue was made by a British sculptor, Bainbridge Copnell, in collaboration with a Burmese artist, San Pe, and I believe it was paid for by the British government as a gift. A member of the Foreign Office noted that this was a very good idea, given that many Burmese still believed that the British had been involved in Aung San’s assassination.
The statue was unveiled in February 1955 in front of Aung San’s widow, and his daughter Aung San Su Kyi – now leader of the ruling party, and de facto Prime Minister of the country. Then Prime Minister U Nu read a passage from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.
Though cut short, Aung San’s life was incredibly rich. Over time his personal ideologies shifted, but he remained thoroughly committed to independence. He was an active student leader, a Thakin, and founded the Communist Party of Burma. He worked with the Japanese to be rid of the British, then the British to be rid of the Japanese, founding what would later become the armed forces of Myanmar in the process. Aung San led the successful negotiations for Burma’s independence from Britain, but did not live to see it. He was assassinated inside the Secretariat building in July 1947, six months before independence.
Aung San’s death is one of the big What Ifs of Myanmar history. If he had survived, would Burma have recovered better from the damage of World War II, and would the civil wars that still plague the country have been avoided or resolved? Could Myanmar have avoided decades of isolation and stymied growth?
Mainstream Burmese accounts of history place Aung San thoroughly in the driver’s seat of negotiations not just with Britain, but with other national ethnic groups within Burma. Accounts from those ethnic groups can differ. But it is certainly the case that Aung San was a proven and pragmatic leader, with both military and political experience, and at the very least recognised the importance of relations with the other ethnic groups.
In Myanmar today, Aung San is practically deified – something he himself talked about in an address to the 1946 congress of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, the political movement he led in the post-war period:
“I am well aware that there is such a great craving in man for heroism and the heroic, and that hero worship forms not a small motif in his complex. I am also aware that, unless man believes in his own heroism and the heroism of others, he cannot achieve much or great things. We must, however, take proper care that we do not make a fetish of this cult of hero-worship, for then we will turn ourselves into followers of false gods and prophets.”