Activists in Burma held officially backed rallies in two cities Wednesday to publicly commemorate for the first time the sensitive anniversary of massive democracy protests that were ultimately crushed by the former military regime 24 years ago.
The Rangoon and Mandalay gatherings, attended by 2,000 members of political parties, former political prisoners, and prominent artists and musicians, would not have been permitted before President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took power in March last year and started the country down the path of democratic reform.
But members of the 88 Generation students group, which led the Aug. 8, 1988 democracy protests, said that while in the past they ran the risk of arrest for marking the anniversary, two of Thein Sein’s cabinet ministers met with them on Tuesday to express both ideological and financial support for the planned rallies.
The ministers handed the activists one million kyat (U.S. $1,200) in cash to aid in preparations.
Wednesday’s main rally was held in Mandalay’s Deki Nayama monastery and hosted by former student leaders, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. The nearly 1,000 attendees included a number of Burma’s ethnic minorities from the country’s border areas, such as Shan and Kayah states.
Ko Ko Gyi, who spent several years in prison following the bloody crackdown on the 1988 uprising when Burma’s junta declared military law in the country, said the gathering called on the government to recognize the anniversary as a national “Day of Democracy” and demanded that the 88 Generation student leaders be allowed to take part in the country’s reform process.
“After 24 years, we 88 Generation members must be part of the political transition in Burma,” he said.
And Min Ko Naing, another 88 Generation student who was jailed in the aftermath of the 1988 military action that left as many as 3,000 people dead, said that his group’s focus was as sharp as ever, despite many of its leaders having spent decades in prison.
“Many 88 Generation students were sent to prison in different locations and their family life was disrupted by that. Many of our lives were thrown into disorder by this prison experience, but we never gave up, even though we were undergoing such harsh measures,” he said.
“Our union’s spirit is strong and our network has been strengthened.”
A second rally was held in Rangoon on Wednesday, which also drew about 1,000 supporters who called on the Burmese government to release all of the country’s remaining political prisoners, as well as to recognize the anniversary as a national holiday.
Win Tin, a senior leader from Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, said that the 88 Generation students still command popular support for their goals of political reform in Burma.
“Many people attended the event because they trust the 88 movement’s strength and spirit and they believe in what the movement had called for,” the 81-year-old politician said, who himself spent nearly 20 years in jail because of his political writings.
“The people still believe in the 88 movement’s political trends in Burma and the responsibility that comes with those goals.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD swept national elections in 1990, but the military government refused to accept the results and jailed many of the country’s democracy activists.
Many of the more well-known activists, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have since been freed, but the government is still holding an unknown number of political prisoners in prisons around Burma.
Former 88 Generation student leader Doe Kyaw Hlaing in Rangoon also called on the government to reverse its stance on the 1988 uprising as an illegal attempt to usurp state power and to recognize Aug. 8 as a day of national remembrance.
“It is necessary that ‘88 Day’ be recognized as an historic day … We called it a revolution, but the government continues to claim that what occurred this day was a riot.”
The former military regime had been accused of killing unarmed civilians, activists and monks about a month after democracy protests spread throughout the country in 1988.
The regime blamed “destructive elements” and both right and left-wing conspiracies aimed at toppling the government in order to justify its crackdown.
No independent commission has ever been established to investigate the massacre.
But Thein Sein’s recent move to recognize the 88 Generation students and their rallies on Wednesday indicates that a change in policy may be on the way.
The Associated Press quoted Ko Ko Gyi as lauding the government for reaching out to the group.
"It's as if the government is also participating in this commemoration," Ko Ko Gyi said. "I feel like this is a step toward reform."
The news agency also quoted presidential spokesman Nay Zin Latt as saying that the government recognized the anniversary as an "historic event" and that the president wanted to show his sincerity about achieving national reconciliation.
"The president always talks about national reconciliation," the spokesman said. "This action can help build better mutual understanding."
Exile Burmese news organization The Irrawaddy quoted government sources as saying that Thein Sein plans to meet the 88 Generation students in the near future, although the exact date has not yet been fixed. It said that Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi had confirmed plans to meet the president.
Thein Sein was a young army officer stationed in northern Burma’s Sagaing division along the Indian border when the 1988 uprising took place. He reportedly captured some student activists attempting to flee across the border after the military crackdown, but instead of arresting them, sent them back home.
And while he is viewed as having implemented substantial democratic changes in Burma, some question whether quarrels between reformist and conservative elements within the ruling party have at times limited his ability to turn the country around from its days of repression under the former military regime.
Just last month, authorities detained more than 20 activists ahead of an event marking the 50th anniversary of another military crackdown on students in 1962 that led to the destruction of a student union building and the shooting of young protesters.
All were later freed, but Burmese activists said the move showed that the government is still willing to trample the rights of dissidents despite enacting reforms.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.