As is very well known, on July 19, 1947, Burmese nationalist leader, Aung San, and six other members of his transitional government were assassinated. A rival politician, U Saw, was charged with having instigated the attack, and was subsequently convicted and hanged.
In the investigation, it was revealed that some low-ranking British officers had sold U Saw the weapons that were used, and this led to rumors about British support for the assassinations.
Knowing this basic information, I was interested to find on the Imperial War Museum site an extended interview with Carlyle Seppings, a man who worked for the Criminal Investigation Department in British Colonial Burma at the time.
In fact, from listening to Seppings’ interview, we find that he was actually in the Secretariat building where Aung San and the others were killed, that he heard the gunfire, and that he arrived at the crime scene not long after the killings had taken place.
Seppings became deeply involved in this case, took part in the capture of U Saw, and talked extensively with U Saw after he had been arrested. Seppings also talks a lot in this interview, but having listened to a lot of it, I don’t come away with a clearer sense of what actually happened.
I do, however, get a sense of how dangerous and dirty the world of politics in late-colonial Burma was. Seppings says that U Saw planned to “dispose of” the men who did the assassinations, but that he was arrested before he could do so.
This doesn’t surprise Seppings, because in conducting his investigation, his men exhumed several corpses in U Saw’s backyard.
This is what Seppings has to say around 10’40” in Reel 9:
“Now when we dug up the grounds of his bungalow we did find corpses. Mainly of young girls who had been made pregnant. And we believed that U Saw was very fond of young women. And I think there were three young girls of 17 or 18, their corpses, well they still hadn’t disintegrated. We found two men that had been buried there, and there were skeletons there, there were male skeletons.”
My guess would be that any man who had literal skeletons in his backyard probably had a few more figurative skeletons in his closet, and that he probably knew about the skeletons in other people’s closets. At around the 6’15” point in that same reel, however, Seppings mentions that U Saw went to the scaffold silently. In doing so, he buried a lot of those skeletons.
Nonetheless, from Seppings’ long interview one can gain a sense of some of the intrigue that was at play at the time.
What you can also see from this interview is that Seppings was a man of his times. He was certainly a child of empire, and he had absolutely no qualms about that.
I saw somewhere on the Internet that he was referred to as an “Anglo-Burman,” but in his interview he said at one point that there was no Burmese blood in him, and then at another point he said that his great grandmother was a Thai woman who married a Burmese minister.
In any case, yet one more fascinating aspect about his interview is that we can get a sense of the period of decolonization. On the one hand, Burmese wanted control of the land, but on the other hand, there were people like Seppings who played important roles and who continued to serve for a time after independence had been achieved.
After investigating the Aung San case, Seppings went off to suppress insurgency in Arakan, was arrested for “smuggling,” was imprisoned and then acquitted.
Someone told him later that the reason why he was arrested was because people in the newly independent government feared that his “rise to power” in Arakan, combined with his Thai ancestry, combined with British intrigue were all coming together as elements in some secret plan for him to take control of the country.
When he was put into Rangoon jail, he met some old classmates who were in jail for being Communists and another man who was in “preventive detention” as he was suspected of being a “Karen terrorist.”
In the end I don’t know enough to be able to fully judge what Seppings says. It is clear that he was a product of empire, and it is also clear that he did not like the way that the Burmese were running the country. At the same time, a lot of complexity about life in colonial and post-colonial Burma comes through in the interview.