Burma marks 1988 pro-democracy uprising

Public commemorations are taking place in Burma to mark the 25th anniversary of the uprisings which launched the country’s pro-democracy movement—the first time the anniversary has been openly commemorated in Rangoon. Hundreds of thousands took part in the “8888” protests, which began on Aug. 8, 1988. But six weeks later, at least 3,000 protesters were dead, thousands more imprisoned, and the military firmly in control. Aung San Suu Kyi, who emerged as the leader of the pro-democracy movement and is now the opposition leader, participated in the commemorations. A new activist formation, 88 Generation, has emerged to coordinate the remembrance. The current reformist government has tacitly approved the commemoration, even though some of the former generals serving in it are implicated in the violence. (BBC News, AAP, Aug. 8)

Human Rights Watch marked the anniversary by calling on Burma’s President Thein Sein to open an independent investigation and fair prosecutions of officials and commanders responsible for the 1988 repression. “The mass killings 25 years ago in Burma are an unaddressed open wound that challenges the government’s rhetoric of reform,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “The government should shed itself of 50 years of denial about military abuses by showing that it stands with the Burmese people and not with the killers of the past.”

The uprising began as a nationwide strike involving thousands of students, Buddhist monks, civil servants, and ordinary citizens, leading to simultaneous protests in cities and towns across Burma, calling for a transition to democracy and an end to military rule. The size and scale of the protests surprised the regime, which then ordered troops to put them down the protests. Troops fired on peaceful protesters; many fled, but some protesters fought back with Molotov cocktails, swords, poisoned darts, and sharpened bicycle spokes, killing some police and other officials.

On Aug. 10, soldiers deliberately fired on and killed doctors and nurses treating wounded civilians at Rangoon General Hospital. On Aug. 12, Sein Lwin, who had replaced long-time dictator Ne Win as president, resigned after 17 days in power. Soldiers largely withdrew to the barracks, and an interim government, headed by civilian Dr. Maung Maung, was appointed on Aug. 19. On Aug. 26, an estimated one million people demonstrated at the Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon’s central landmark. Aung San Suu Kyi, who in 1991 would win the Nobel Peace Prize, was one of the day’s many speakers who defied the military government and called for an end to authoritarian rule. Daily protests continued through August and September, with demonstrators organizing local administration committees to maintain peace and order. 

The military launched a coup on Sept. 18 that established the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), chaired by Gen. Saw Maung. Soldiers returned to the streets and again fired on peaceful protesters, killing thousands. Thousands more were arrested, and thousands more still fed to neighboring countries. Protest leaders and activists were imprisoned for years and subjected to torture and other abuses in prison. 

In the current tentative democratic opening, commemoration events are also being permitted in other towns across the country. Previously banned books documenting the events of 1988, including Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner’s groundbreaking Outrage, are now openly sold in the country in Burmese and English. But no government officials have ever been held accountable for abuses committed during the crackdown.

Human Rights Watch also urged the government to establish independent inquiries into the suppression of peaceful protests over the past 25 years, including the student demonstrations in Rangoon in December 1996 and the Buddhist monk-led demonstrations in September 2007. Other incidents, such as the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in the Upper Burma town of Depayin in May 2003 that left scores dead, have also never been independently investigated.

“It is important that Thein Sein’s government has permitted civil society to stage commemorative events, but the government should go further and admit military culpability and commit to ending the military’s role in all aspects of governance,” Adams said. “The brutality of the 1988 crackdown was a key factor in the past 25 years of fear that fuelled continued military rule. Addressing these abuses is absolutely necessary for Burmese society to move forward.” (HRW, Aug. 8)

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