In shadow of Olympics, Myanmar mourns failed ’88 uprising
As China celebrates the start of the Olympics on Friday with much fanfare, activists in neighbouring Myanmar will silently mourn the bloody end of an uprising that crushed their dreams of democracy 20 years ago.
In August 1988, cities and villages across the country then known as Burma were bursting with optimism.
The military dictator Ne Win had just stepped down after decades of iron-fisted rule, and Burma was inspired by a prophecy that it would become a free nation on August 8 — known as 8-8-88.
Students who had already protested for almost a year against Ne Win’s socialist government called for a national uprising on the auspicious date, drawing activists, Buddhist monks, and even young military cadets into the streets clamouring for freedom.
“On August 8, it was not just one city or one area, it was all over Burma — everywhere, even the remote villages. It was not just students or monks or workers. Everybody was there,” said Win Min, then a medical student who helped organise the protests, and now a university professor in Thailand.
“We had high hopes that the situation could change, high hopes that democracy could come to Burma, high hopes that our economic problems would be solved,” he said.
But the euphoria was short-lived.
After dark on August 8, soldiers began shooting protesters in the streets of the then-capital Rangoon, beginning six weeks of bloodshed that left an estimated 3,000 dead.
The protests rumbled on amid the violence, powered by anger at the regime and the once-promising economy it had hammered into the ground.
In the swirl of near-anarchy, a new national leadership emerged in a country under dictatorship since 1962.
The previously obscure and expatriate daughter of a liberation hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, stood before crowds outside the golden Shwedagon Pagoda on August 26, making an eloquent call for democracy and instantly becoming the public face of the movement.
She was joined by veteran politicians and ethnic leaders, including some top generals who had grown disillusioned with the regime.
Without Ne Win, the government struggled to contain the unrest. A series of leaders within the regime rose and fell, until finally a group of generals seized power in a coup on September 18.
The new regime, calling itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), officially allowed the creation of opposition parties and moved to create a market economy.
But in reality, the junta clamped down on the democracy movement, placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in July 1989. Twenty years later, she is still confined to her home, having only enjoyed a few brief years of freedom.
Even with their leader locked away, her followers in the new National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections in 1990, but were never allowed to govern.
Many student leaders were imprisoned and only released in 2005, when they quickly returned to activism.
They launched new protests against the ruling junta last August, only to be arrested again. Buddhist monks took over the protest movement, but were shot and beaten by security forces in September.
Tun Myint Aung is among the activists, now known as the ’88 Generation, who escaped arrest and continues to try to campaign against the regime while living in hiding.
“The only change has been to a worse condition,” he told AFP, when asked to asses his country’s progress in the past 20 years.
“Now the military junta and their relatives and cronies, this small group exploits our country’s riches. There are great gaps between a handful of military troops and the masses of people.”
The situation in Myanmar now appears worse than ever.
The democracy movement is in shambles after last year’s protests were crushed. The economy is moribund, and huge swathes of the country are still reeling from a devastating cyclone that hit three months ago.
Despite the grim outlook, Win Min says he still believes his country can change — eventually.
“Look at China’s progress,” Win Min said. “Myanmar is where China was 30 years ago.”
“If the economic situation of the people is not improved, there will be demonstrations again.”