Activists who participated in the August 1988 student-led uprising against the harsh military regime that had run Myanmar for more than 25 years say their movement remains relevant today as the country then known as Burma has yet to achieve full democracy three decades after soldiers quashed their protests, killing thousands.
Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of the popular uprising against a former military-led government under General Ne Win, a reclusive dictator who took power in a 1962 coup, ushering in totalitarian rule by a corrupt military junta, economic stagnation, and incessant war against ethnic minority groups.
One of the sparks that set off protests was a decision by the Ne Win government in 1987 to demonetize Myanmar’s currency, the kyat, rendering most of the country's banknotes illegal, and leaving students and others unable to pay for their tuition and living expenses. Riots at several universities ensued, culminating in a general strike that was put down on Aug. 8, 1988.
The so-called “8888” protests led to a general election in 1990, in which the then opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won a majority of seats in parliament. But the military overturned the election results and continued to rule.
After the crackdown, the government jailed many of the university students who participated in the uprising for their pro-democracy activities, prompting Western governments and human rights groups to call for their release. Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
The ensuing decades saw Aung San Suu Kyi mostly under house arrest while her country remained isolated, until General Thein Sein ushered in a quasi-civilian government under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in 2011.
That government increased civil freedoms, offered some political and economic opportunities for citizens, and loosened control of the media. Elections in 2015 then produced a civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD which has ruled the country since late March 2016.
Activists from the 1988 protests gathered this week to mark the event, weigh the achievements, and reflect on unfinished tasks.
“We have had a series of anti-government movements since 1962, but all classes of people participated in 1988 uprising,” said Ko Ko Gyi, an 88 Generation Student Group leader and prominent former political prisoner.
“It is outstanding and different from other movements,” he said. “As a result of this, we have had political, social, and economic changes in our country.”
‘More rights for the people’
Activist Thin Thin Aye, better known as Mie Mie, noted that the 1988 uprising marked the first time that the people fought back against the military dictatorship and that its main accomplishment was the dismantlement of an established one-party political system.
“We carried that strength from the 1988 uprising to fight military dictatorship until we got a civilian government,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
A prominent member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group, Mie Mie has led numerous anti-government protests and has been jailed several times since 1988.
In 2015, she was arrested along with students for participating in a protest in the central Myanmar town of Letpadan against controversial proposed changes to the country’s national education policy. She was freed in April 2016 in keeping with a pledge by Aung San Suu Kyi to release detained students under the NLD government.
Galonni Sayadaw, also known as Ashin Kawwida, who participated in the 1988 uprising as a monk, said the uprising remains the most important movement in Myanmar’s history.
“Myanmar has changed because of this 88 uprising with the extension of more rights for the people,” he said.
“Many lives were lost when we fought the military dictatorship during this uprising,” he said, referring to the thousands who were killed during the August 1988 crackdown.
Attorney and former political prisoner Thein Than Oo said divisions still exist in Myanmar today between those who supported the 1988 uprising and those who opposed it.
“We still have to hold the flag of democracy, peace, and ethnic unity that was born of the 1988 uprising,” he said.
Transition to democracy
Former information minister Ye Htut said the uprising was instrumental in showing the need for a government to develop better social and economic opportunities for citizens.
The lessons the movement imparted are that political leaders must work together on reforms for a smoother transition to full democracy and that those in power need not despise their opponents, he said.
Naing Aung, former chairman of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), said the goals of the 1988 uprising are still in their infancy because only large parties dominate Myanmar’s political landscape though there are many small ones, and that the democratic notions of human rights and freedom of speech continue to be weak.
“People’s understanding of and adherence to democratic principles are weak as well,” he told RFA. “It means they believe what they hear. They don’t question back. They still are fearful and think they have to do whatever officials say. People who have power bully ordinary people.”
Thet Zin, editor-in-chief of Myanmar’s The World Today magazine, said those who participated in the 1988 uprising expected to see an equal multiple-democracy party system that included all of the country’s ethnic parties, though this has yet to be achieved.
“The NLD and these ethnic political parties have been working together for a long time, but there have been disagreements and problems between them,” he said. “It is like ethnic groups are being ignored, and the NLD government alone can’t accomplish political reform.”
The NLD government has been holding periodic talks with ethnic political parties and their respective military groups in a bid to forge lasting peace in the country after seven decades of armed conflict and strained relations with ethnic minority groups. The ethnic political parties and their associated armies seek equality and greater autonomy under a federal union in Myanmar.
The uprising’s anniversary was commemorated on Wednesday at an event at the University of Yangon in Myanmar’s commercial capital. Leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, current Information Minister Pe Myint, Yangon Regional Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein, lawmakers, and members of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee attended the ceremony.
Those who participated in discussions of the uprising and its aftermath issued a statement calling for a federal democratic union in Myanmar and for amendments to the 2008 constitution, a document drafted by a former military junta that solidifies the military’s political power.
The constitution guarantees the military a quarter of legislative seats through appointment in parliament and gives the bloc a crucial veto over proposed changes to the charter. The armed forces also control three defense and security ministries — defense, border, and home affairs.
“We have been asked if our demands have been met after 30 years, said Min Ko Naing, a democracy activist and former 88 Generation Students Group leader at Yangon University.
“Having a parliament and elections was not our goal,” he said. “We will have to work hard for a parliament filled entirely with elected members and for a government made up entirely of civilians.”
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Nay Rein Kyaw, and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.