On the eve of the 19th anniversary of the events of August 8, 1988, I would like to pay my respects to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Burmese who rallied for change in a country so deprived of basic rights and shut from the rest of the world and especially to the thousands of civilians who were killed by gunfire during these protests. 1988 marks a defining point in Burma’s history, as the cry for democracy was heard by the authorities, who finally promised a multiparty democracy, after years of stubbornly ignoring the ongoing economic and social crises in Burma for many years.
The protests of 1988 were marked with anarchy, fear and loss of structure. During the protests, violent lootings, claimed by the pro-democracy movement to be incited by the government and the dissolution of security within major cities, particularly Rangoon occurred. Many foreign embassies, including that of the United States, evacuated their employees. Violence occurred on both sides, government soldiers pitted against civilian militias who had been overseeing security in various neighborhoods in Rangoon.
Politically, Ne Win, the “No. 1” of Burma, had “transferred” his power to Sein Lwin, a notably ruthless man and a close confidante of Ne Win. Ne Win reportedly pled with the Burma Socialist Programme Party, the state’s political organ, to reform the country into a democracy but failed. Sein Lwin quickly resigned, and Maung Maung, a civilian took over. But that only quelled protesters more, who demanded that a temporary government be formed to oversee the elections, even though Maung Maung had promised to hold multiparty elections within a few months. Then, it happened. The Burmese Armed Forces had found the perfect opportunity to stage a coup and did so, placing hundreds of Socialist Programme Party members under house arrest. The coup was led by Defense Minister Saw Maung, and rumors, probably true, circulated that Ne Win was behind all of this. 19 years on, the Burmese Armed Forces remains in power, after undergoing several guises.
To explain the military’s role, Burma’s past needs to be in the context. In modern Burma, the military has played a key role in politics, serving from the time of parliamentary democracy in the 1940s and 1950s to legitimately take over power whenever chaos seemed to loom around the corner (particularly from ethnic rebels). When Burma became a socialist country, the military remained in the background, pulling some of the strings. My mother, who attended St. Mary’s High School at the time, recalls that at her school, the most ‘popular’ girls were the daughters of military generals, while at Methodist High School, Burma’s top-ranked high school, the most ‘popular’ girls were daughters of ministers and upper-rank officials of the government. At lower-ranked high schools, like Hledan High School, the most ‘popular’ girls were the daughters of wealthy businessmen. This reflects the tiers of Burmese society of the time, where government officials were at the top, then military officials and wealthy civilians. Then, there was a role reversal. Since the events of 1988, military officials now hold the highest rank in Burmese society. Nowadays, to marry into the family of a military general is to ensure oneself a life of financial security.
The events of 1988 brought about tepid change, including free multiparty elections in 1991 to form the Parliament. However, the military government, which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) at the time, twisted its words. It explained that the elections had been to elect delegates for a national convention to rewrite the constitution. In fact, 1988 marks the 19th year the military has been in power.
I recall the first time I learned about the 1988 uprisings. It was 1996 and I was about seven, and my father’s friend from college (I don’t remember his name, but my mother always joked that he was a lanba, a tall and skinny man) visited my family to give us a homemade VHS tape of the protests and violence of 8.8.88. The people who documented these horrific events, on an ordinary black-and-white video camera must have been enormously brave. I remember the first few minutes of watching, many people protesting on a wide street. Then, my mother told me to close my eyes, fearing that the violence was too much. I obeyed, but I could hear gunshots, slaughtering by knife, screams, and rallying cries. To this day, I have not watched the entirety of the tape. Perhaps I am not ready to take in all of the tragedy that happened.
I am thankful for the many brave men and women, monks and students, housewives and civil servants, who pressed for change. Change, as they saw it, may not have come, but the spirit of their protests remain, obscured by the repression of the government. But their devotion to the cause of democracy and freedom only prove that democracy will come to Burma, some day. Their work was not at all meaningless; if anything, they helped to shape the views and core values of today’s democratic movement in Burma.
There is a Burmese belief that an unexpected or sudden death of a person, called sein thay, causes the ghost of the person to linger at the place for years to come. I can only imagine how many ghosts still linger in the streets of Rangoon.