The commemoration of the 8888 movement, a watershed moment in Myanmar's history, is an opportunity to build a more inclusive and democratically stable society
The 25th anniversary of Myanmar’s historic 8888 Movement is being celebrated in Yangon from August 6 to 8. The event has been organized by leaders of the students’ group now known as the 88 Generation, with donations from the public.
The event is a commemoration as well as a celebration. It is a commemoration for the fallen heroes of the 1988 student-led uprising against General Ne Win’s rule. It is a celebration because this is the first time the government has allowed such a commemoration to be held, a testament to the gradual democratic reforms in the country.
In previous years, it was impossible to organize the event in Myanmar. Even just saying ‘88’ could land you behind bars. It could only be celebrated outside the country, by people in exile and Myanmarese expatriates.
The three day event has seen potential future leaders of the country, including the leaders of the 88 Generation, come together and discuss political strategies. The theme is peace and national reconciliation. The organizers have invited people from different walks of life to participate in discussion, including ethnic minorities and those who did not participate in the 1988 uprising.
It has been an occasion to educate the younger generation about the historical significance of the Four Eight Movement, about how it started and what really happened on that fateful day.
After months of countrywide protests by students against the sudden cancellation by Ne Win of certain currency denominations that wiped out people’s savings, on the morning of August 8, 1988, protesters took to the streets and marched toward the city center in Rangoon. The confrontation and the subsequent clashes between demonstrators and soldiers lasted for days; the protests were brutally crushed by the military rulers.
The precise number of deaths is unknown, but has been estimated to be around 3,000 people, mostly students. Among many other demands, the protesters were asking for the replacement of one-party rule with a multiparty system. The people wanted to make a fresh start under a democratic government.
Much of Myanmar’s present-day politics started with the 8888 uprising. The uprising led to the resignation of leader General Ne Win, who had taken power in a coup in 1962, and the demise of his Burma Socialist Programme Party, which comprised ex-military officers and was the vehicle through which he built his one-party rule.
His resignation did not lead to the hoped for democratic reforms, but instead resulted in another military coup in September 1988. This time, the government was called the State Law and Order Restoration Council. The country’s name changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and its capital, from Rangoon to Yangon.
The August uprising also marked the entry of Aung San Suu Kyi into politics. Then on a visit to Myanmar from England to look after her ailing mother, she was drawn to the protests, and as the daughter of General Aung San, who had fought for Burma’s freedom from British rule, she was almost immediately hailed as its leader.
After the movement was crushed, thousands of Burmese fled to neighboring countries. Some people were fortunate to move on to Europe and North America.
The majority, however, spent their lives either in the jungle or in refugee camps along the Indo-Burma and Thai-Burma borders. Many youngsters, mostly students, either formed new armed groups or joined the established armed groups such as the Karen National Liberation Army, Kachin Independence Army and the Shan State Army.
The 8888 movement culminated in the 1990 elections, the first free elections in three decades that was swept by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. But the result was not honored.
The previous year, was the beginning of nearly two decades during which Suu Kyi would be detained, placed under house arrest, and released for brief periods only to be put back under house arrest again.
Provided the ongoing democratization process does not reverse, it will take Myanmar years, if not decades, to stabilize.
That is why it is important the anniversary of 8888 is utilized by the younger generation to mobilize people towards building a responsible, democratic society. Peace building must begin at grass-roots level to improve relations between ethnic communities.
In view of the upcoming national census in 2014 in Myanmar and the general election in 2015, it is increasingly important for the 88 Generation student leaders to build trust and improve the shaky relations between ethnic Burmans and the erstwhile frontier people.
The event could mark the beginning of the formation of robust civil society organizations that are essential elements for democratic consolidation. The 88 Generation leaders must engage in promoting activities that strive for equality of rights for all citizens and in strengthening the majority-minority relations.
Sooner or later, the government too is likely to realize the significance of the day.
This article was originally published under the title “A new Route Four Eight for Myanmar” in The Hindu newspaper, based in India, and has been used here with permission from the author.