1948: U Saw and the assassins of Aung San

On this date in 1948, Burma hanged six for a shocking assassination that haunts the country to this day.

The previous summer — specifically, at 10:37 a.m. on July 19th — independence hero/proto-head of state Aung San and six members of his cabinet had been massacred by gunmen

The trail quickly led back to rival pol U Saw, himself a former Prime Minister of under British colonial rule.

U Saw had once defended in court the hero of a peasant revolt that the British had quelled with some difficulty. His own maneuverings were heretofore of a more slippery character, having negotiated with the British government early in World War II for independent dominion status — and then turned around and negotiated with the Japanese for consideration in their occupation government.

(The British caught him at his act, and locked him up for the rest of the war. Aung San — “hands … dyed in British and loyal Burmese blood,” Winston Churchill charged* — had also collaborated with the Japanese, who were viewed as liberators by many who had struggled against British domination.)

U Saw was executed with three collaborators in this plot this day at Insein prison, while two others were hanged at Rangoon prison.

But were the British the unindicted co-conspirators?

The damage done by the assassination, in any event, could not be undone with the noose. Aung San appeared to be the only person with sufficient stature to govern Burma effectively. After his death, the newly independent country suffered impotent governments, ethnic conflict, and eventually coups that have today brought to power one of the more repugnant military dictatorships in the world.

The current Burmese junta has for a generation held under house arrest the most recent person to democratically win (but not assume) the office of Prime Minister: Aung San’s daughter, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

* Churchill said this after Aung San’s assassination. See London Times, Nov. 6, 1947, p. 4.