In August 2014, I made my first ever visit to Burma/Myanmar. It was just a few days, and I didn't get beyond Rangoon/Yangon. I had the privilege of meeting a number of remarkable men and women - and on this page, I am posting my interviews with two of them, U Ba Aye and (in due course) Daw Myint Myint Han.
It's difficult to believe that, in the summer of 2014, any of Aung San's contemporaries could still be around and in a position to share their memories of the man and the manner of his death. Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) was Burma's independence hero - but he was assassinated in Rangoon in July 1947, a few months before his country gained independence from Britain.
On my visit to Yangon, I met U Ba Aye, aged 97. He was a contemporary of Aung San at Rangoon University. He was offered a military post by Aung San when the latter was head of Burma's army during Japanese rule in the Second World War. Most remarkably, as a senior police officer, U Ba Aye was put in charge of one of the most sensitive aspects of the investigation into Aung San's killing - the suggestion that British nationals were in some way involved. He was present at the jail when some of those found guilty of the murder were hanged.
I met U Ba Aye at his Yangon home, in the company of his daughter Khin Nwe Aye. Although frail, U Ba Aye's memory was sharp and he clearly relished the conversation and the opportunity to share his memories of key moments in Burma/Myanmar's history. It was one of the most memorable interviews I've conducted - a window on a distant but crucial moment in Asia's modern history, and the privilege of hearing from a participant in that history.
Khin Nwe Aye was later in touch to pass on the sad news that on August 21 2014, twelve days after the interview, her father died. She has given permission for the interview and transcript to be posted on this site; she has checked and corrected the transcript; she has also sent the photographs of her father which you can see above.
I have subsequently received the photos below from Mo Aye, U Ba Aye's grandson. He explains that the photo below on the left, on horseback, appeared undated in U Ba Aye's Burmese autobiography. When asked, U Ba Aye recalled that it was taken in about 1939 when he was in the police battalion (7 Battalion Burma Rifles) - but that's not absolutely confirmed. The photo below on the right was taken when he was Deputy Commissioner of Rangoon Police in newly independent Burma in 1948.
U Ba Aye interviewed by Andrew Whitehead at his home in Yangon, 9 August 2014 in the presence of his daughter Khin Nwe Aye. U Ba Aye died on 21 August 2014.
Q: First, could you tell me, sir, your name?
Q: And when were you born?
28 December 1916. So I’m now 97 and 6 months.
Q: And your career was initially in the police force?
Well, initially. I would say initially. Because during the British administration, the youngest was the age of 21 to get into what they called the Indian police in those days, but afterwards, after ‘37, when Burma had a different constitution, it was called Burma police class one. So I was in the Burma police class one from January 1939 till independence.
Q: Where were you when the war started.
During the war time, when I was in the Burma police class one, still under training in Pegu, what is now called Bago, I volunteered to serve in the seventh Burma police, Burma rifles. Seventh battalion. When the British withdrew, I was in the seventh battalion
Q: So you were a soldier?
Well (chuckles) I was a soldier, it's a police battalion formed during the war, that was formed in1940. While under training in the civil police, I volunteered to join the seven Burma police battalion, Burma rifles. So when the British withdrew, seven battalion was ordered to the Maulmein front, but I was left behind in Mandalay as a officer in charge of the depot of the seven battalion. So when the British withdrew from Burma altogether, then I withdrew from Mandalay up to Katha. In Katha - all the battalions are disbanded.
Q: What did you feel when the British were forced out of Burma during the war? Were you upset?
When the British withdrew from Mandalay, I was on a steamer, on a river steamer, with many other soldiers and another battalion, ten battalion. I was placed in charge of all the Burmese soldiers. There were about 400 Burmese soldiers. and when we reached Katha and the battalions were disbanded, they said well, everybody is for himself. Whoever wants to come along with them to India, they can do so with them - or if they want to stay behind in Burma, they are allowed to do so. So I asked the soldiers under my command, and there were about 400, and majority of them naturally said they wouldn't evacuate to India, they would stay behind. So I had to stay behind too. So I did not go along with other officers to India, (5'15)
Q: Did you actually fight the Japanese?
Well, I didn't have to fight the Japanese. I had to work under the Japanese. So when I evacuated, when the British withdrew, my family was in Mogok, so I walked from Kathar to Mogok
Q: How far is that?
Along the Shweli river - it took me seven nights and eight days, About 130 miles or so. Then from Mogok with my family, I returned to my home town, Zigon, that is about 120 miles from Rangoon on the north-west, on the [ph]Prome road side.
Q: And you said you worked for the Japanese during the war, what did you do?
Well, I had to - I was called back by the. Burmese government during the Japanese time, because I was staying in [ph] Segong and did not join the Japanese, what shall I say, the Japanese service. So I was called by the. Burmese administration after several years, and was given a job in the police. I was then assistant chief of police in Rangoon during the Japanese.
Q: That's a very important job
Well it was, yes - I was the second man in Rangoon.
Q: How difficult was life in Rangoon at that time?
Well in a way I would say I was fortunate because the officers, the Japanese officers that I met during the war time, they were all very decent persons. I don't know whether they may understand English, but I had no problem with the Japanese.
Q: What was life like for ordinary people in the city at that time?
Well in the city of course, everything is very difficult to get, especially no medicines, no medical care, no - I would say all the things that you need are very difficult to get, it's a very difficult life for the people.
Q: And how many people had left Rangoon, because you hear that lots of people had left Rangoon when the Japanase came. So was the city empty?
When the Japanese came, I wasn't in Rangoon. When the Japanese came, I was in Mogok and Mogok, the Japanese and the Burmese Independence Army, what was called the BIA, they heard that there was one British army office in Mogok, so the family with whom I was living, he advised me to flee away from Mogok. So I had to flee from Mogok. Then Mogok was under occupation by the Burmese Independence Army. (Chuckles) I left Mogok as a monk, as a monk, because there was a sentry spit at the entrance of Mogok town. So I left with other monks. And then my family was brought by the relatives of the people who took care of our family in my car.
Q: So when you were disguising yourself as a monk, who were you hiding from? From the Japanese?
From the BIA.
Q: From the Burmese Independence Army? Because you were worried that if they got you,bcause you were a police officer, thatyou would be in difficulty?
No, because I was not - they didn't know I was a police officer. They said there was a British, not a British, they said a soldier of the British army in Mogok
Q: And that was you?
- I was the only one. The person who took care of my family said it must be me and advised me not to meet any person from BIA and just to escape from Mogok (12'20)
Q: At that time what your own views about Burma’s independence and who should control the country?
At that time, I had very littlec ontact with the Burmese Independence Army. I knew nobody in the Burmese Independence Army.
Q: Later you met Aung San?
I did. When I worked in the Rangoon police under the Japanese, then Aung San, Bogyoke Aung San, was head of the Burmese army, so I met him. But - there was no relation.
Q: When you met him, what did he look like? Describe Aung San to me.
I knew Aung. San when I was in the University. I joined the University in 1931. Aung San joined in 1932. He was about one year and two months older than me, but was one year junior to me in the Rangoon University. Well, since then I knew him, but not as a friend because I was in a different hostel -.he was in [?] Pegu hall.I was in [?} Seguin hall.
A: What was he like as a man. When you went to see him, what did he look like, how did he behave?
Well, he then was practising to be a very good orator. When I was in the University - reputable persons gave a lecture about once a month in the students’ union building and in every lecture, when the lecturer gave the floor to the audience, Aung San never failed to say something, whatever it was, sometimes it was connected to the lecture, but sometimes it wasn’t. I think he was then practising to be a good orator.
Q: Did you admire him?
Well, in a way. You can say, you can quite obviously knew that he was trying to be a politician.
Q: And when you met him, he offered you a job
When he met me, he said would I come, would I join the army. So I said, let me ask my boss, because I was assistant chief of police, let me ask my chief of police. Then he said, well, it's ok then, forget about it. Because I didn't. give him an answer on the spot.
Q: So he wanted you to say yes straight away?
That's what I meant.
Q: And you weren't going to say yes straight away
No. It was quite natural that I should tell that to my chief and then ask his opinion and what would he think, but Aung Sam wanted me to enter on the spot.
Q: for somebody who had never seen Aung. San, how would you describe him, what did he look like.when you saw him was he wearing military uniform.
No- in the army or in the university?
Q: When he offered you the job
Then he was head of the Burmese army, with the Japanese, so he was in military uniform
Q: Was he an effective military leader?
That I couldn't tell.
Q: When Aung San was killed, where were you?
When he was killed, I was on my way back from England to Rangoon. I was in England on leave in 1947, from about February 47, then I was recalled back to Burma in July. And I was on my way back from England to Rangoon, and I arrived in Rangoon only two days after the assassination. Then I was given, we were allowed six days joining time to rejoin the service from leave, so after that, say about a week later, I was given a secret assignment by the Deputy Inspector General of police of the Criminal Investigation Department who was in charge of the assassination case. The secret assignment was to find out if there was any British conspiracy in the assassination. So I had to investigate very secretly - and all about the investigation was written in my book, all what I remembered then about the investigation. (19'30)
Q: When you heard that Aung San had been killed, was that when you were on the ship or when you arrived back?
In those days, there was - BOAC had no air service with aeroplanes, there were seaplanes – I was on a seaplane. We had to land in river Ganges because Calcutta was our next stop. The sea lanes didn't fly during the day [sic] so during the night we were put up at a house on the land by BOAC. So on the night of the 19th July, while we are at a house in Allahabad, then I heard on the radio that Aung San was killed.
Q: Which radio were you listening to?
Well, I didn't know. That was provided by the BOAC at the house. I would think it, it was maybe the BBC.
Q: The BBC?
(Chuckles) I think so.
Q: What did you feel when you heard that news?
Well, I was quite surprised. I was away from Burma for fiver six months,I was not in touch with Burma and not in touch with Burmese politics. When I was recalled, I was told by the home minister under the Japanese - who was then in England, in London - to go back to Burma because the political situation in Burma was very unstable.
Q: You were training at Scotland Yard were you. when you were in London?
It wasn't an official training. While I was on leave it was my private arrangement to have a study tour. It’s not an official training.
Q: when you heard the news about Aung San’s death at Allahabad on the radio, were you shocked .
Naturally, yes, I was. And when I reached Rangoon two days later, Rangoon was all very quiet. I was met at the place where the seaplane landed, I was met only by my family.
Q: The streets were otherwise empty?
The whole town was all quiet and the streets were empty. So we were allowed six days joining time, so I went back to my home town.
Q: And then when you came back to Rangoon, you are given this special task - but it was always clear who was responsible for the killing of Aung San and his colleagues?
Of course it was clear, because the persons who killed Aung San, and U Saw, they were arrested on the day the assassination occurred. The assassination occurred at about 10:37, and U Saw's house was raided about 3 o'clock. That was what I knew later, of course wasn't in Rangoon, that was what I knew later. U Saw's house was raided and U Saw and his people were arrested on the same day. (23'40)
Q: And these were basically political rivals of Aung San?
Well, they were Aung San's – not, the murderers were not the political rivals
Q: But U Saw was the rival
U Saw's private army or U Saw's - in those days the politicians had got a sort of a small committee of their stooges
Q: So the killers were part of the private army of U Saw who was a rival political figure to Aung San?
That's right. (24'30)
Q: So when you were given this task of working out whether there was any British involvement, why did anybody think that the British might be responsible?
I think - by then there was already a case about a month or so before the assassination, an issue of about 200 Bren guns from the British army, withdrawn by the police supply officer who was then an army captain seconded to the police. So it was on his [word indistinct] that 200 Bren guns were issued. So then, well, I assumed that the CID, that the Burmese government has already known that U Saw was involved in it.
Q: Did these Bren guns which were withdrawn from army supplies – were they the guns that killed Aung San?
Well, those Bren guns were issued to the army battalion. The guns that killed Aung San were not Bren guns, I think Tommy guns, these automatic machine guns.
Q: So your investigation into British involvement – did you find any British involvement in the killing of Aung San?
No, my assignment ended without any result, because when I was investigating, when I found that the point man in Rangoon was one – was known as G.S. Bingley, he was head of the British Council, and he had diplomatic privilege, so we were not allowed to – not to touch any British persons because we were still under the British administration. So we couldn’t get any further information at all. So it came to an end.
Q: So you didn’t have the access you required to do the job that you had been asked to do?
No, there was no result at all, no result. It was, well, an empty assignment. So then my assignment came to an end.
Q:Do you think there might have been British involvement in the killing of Aung San?
Well, we had only suspicion, because then already talks were going on for independence, the government was going to give independence. And what we thought in our opinion, but was never expressed, that probably this group of persons in England, maybe supporters of the former governor Sir Dorman Smith, who was a British minister in the Conservative army [sic] who was then governing England –
Q: So you’re suggesting that if there was involvement, it wasn’t the British government but it was people linked to right-wing figures in Britain?
I think because, what we thought was, well, if when Aung San was killed and when U Saw – if Aung San became Prime Minister, the Conservative person would find it difficult to handle Aung San, because what we knew was the Conservative party consisted of many business people, and they had known U Saw when Sir Dorman Smith was governor, they knew U Saw would be very much easier to handle than Aung San, so they probably would prefer Aung San [sic] become the Prime Minister in the government after Aung San’s assassination
Q: For Burma, how important was Aung San and how much of a difference did his killing make?
We considered, at that time we didn’t think – I find it difficult to answer that question because when I was in the police, I had very little connection with the political side. Mostly I was in the administration of the police force, so although I was in the police force I knew very little about politics, Burmese politics. I think that people considered Aung San would be a good leader. [brief interruption] (32’00)
Q: If I may ask one last question, when you look back on those timse and your work in the police, how do you feel about looking back on those times? Do you feel pride in what you did, do you feel sadness about the way in which things developed in Burma, how do you feel?
I resigned from the police after my secret investigation. When it came to an end, I was posted to the Rangoon police, that was a time the British officers were replaced by Burmese officers, and I was posted, transferred, as deputy commissioner of police in Rangoon. That was in about October 1947. Then when independence came, we of course lost our career under the British and we were taken over by the Burmese government. And we were not – well, what shall I say, we were not so much trusted by the new Burmese government.
Q: Because you were seen to have been involved with the British?
All of us in the British service, what was then called Burmese police class one, also in the civil service, they thought they were all, what shall I say, stooges of the British people. So, well, generally speaking – there were only about ten or twelve Burmese officers in the police force, in the class one service, and we were not trusted, and it was very difficult to work with them. So I resigned from the police force
Q: When was this?
In – actually January 1949, one year and one month, but officially I had the leave credit, so I officially ended in April 1949. So I left the police service - because from the time I joined the Burma police service, joined the police service, I wasn’t very happy about it.
Q: And of all the cases that you did, was that Aung San secret investigation the most interesting and exciting case you had?
It was a very, very difficult and you have got to be very careful. I had to investigate and talk with British army officers, and even my colleagues in the police didn’t know what I was doing. Because the head of the CID, that DIG that I mentioned, I think he knew already there was some British involvement in the assassination because the issue of 200 guns is unheard of. Actually, in those days one British battalion was issued only with 12 Bren guns. So an issue of 200 guns from the army in one lot is, obviously, is very dangerous.
Q: Were you given the job because the DIG trusted you or were you given the job because they thought you would be sympathetic to the British?
No – because I was then back from England and they knew that I had – although it was not an official arrangement with the Scotland Yard – they knew I with Scotland Yard and by experience in Scotland Yard, I think because of that they gave me that assignment. That’s what I felt at that time. (Chuckles) (38’00)
RESUMED AFTER A FEW MINUTES PAUSE – NEW TRACK
Q: Did you know U Saw?
I talked with – I had to talk with U Saw during my assignment, while U Saw was in Insein jail. While under investigation, I had to talk to take charge of U Saw’s finances, that was a bank account, and U Saw’s clothing. (Chuckles) So I went and talked with him to find out if there would be any clue in the conversation, but he was – he was a Prime Minister (Chuckles) I was just a very junior, very young, policeman, probably he felt – well I thought he knew that I was trying to scoop something out of his conversation and he would never talk whether he was involved or not. He never denied it. He never admitted.
Q: And did he talk about his friends in London?
No he didn’t. No
Q: Do you think U Saw was responsible?
Well U Saw – [word indistinct] he didn’t admit it. He didn’t deny it. And then the gunmen who killed Aung San, when they were reassembled after the murder in his house, so he must be quite confident that after Aung San was killed he might be called up by the governor to form the next government. Otherwise I couldn’t think that – of course, I didn’t ask myself why he reassembled these persons in his house after the murder.
Q: Because from his point of view it was very reckless, the people who ahd killed Aung San and several of his ministerial colleagues then gathered in the house of U Saw, a political leader, and therefore incriminated U Saw himself.
Well, yes. But if they were not reassembled, the police would not have been able to discover the case right on the day. Because the DIG of police - his name was U Tun Hla Aung – he had his friend opposite U Saw’s house, and he asked his friend to watch the movement of U Saw’s – and U Saw’s car. It was on his friend’s report that on that day that the house was raided.
Q: And U Saw was hanged?
U Saw was hanged.
Q: Did you attend?
No, that was – it was attended by my chief of police. I think out of five that were hanged, two were hanged in the Rangoon jail, three were in Insein jail. U Saw was in Insein jail. I had to go and see the two who was [sic] hung in Rangoon jail. Because our responsibility then was to verify that the person who was going to be hung is the right person. Then after hanging, you have to see that he was really dead. I was with a doctor, medical doctor, and so was the chief of police in Insein jail. That was the procedure.
Q: So you were present when those two killers went to the gallows?
Went to the gallows – but (chuckles) I wasn’t brave enough to watch at the gallows. I just waited in the office. I had identfied the person when he was took to the gallows, and I identified him after he was dead, never want to see him at the gallows.
Q: So you saw the body afterwards, but you weren’t there when he was hung?
No, I was not at the place of the gallows, no. (5’50)
(This is a full transcript but stumbles. repetitions and occasional interjections have been omitted.)
The audio of the interview is posted below. It's in two sections because, after the initial interview, U Ba Aye began speaking about interrogating those believed responsible for Aung San's murder, so I switched the recording device on again!
My interview with Ba Aye formed the main part of an edition of the BBC World Service prize-winning programme Witness, broadcast in February 2015 on the centenary of the birth of Burma's independence here, Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi).
Ba Aye was a contemporary of Aung San at Rangoon University - was offered a wartime role by Aung San in Burma's army - and played an important role in investigating Aung San's assassination in 1947 a few months before Burma gained independence.