Burma's democratic revolution | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 11, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 11, 2008

Burma's democratic revolution

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The desire for freedom cannot be suppressed.Photo: AFP

THOUSANDS of people joined mass protests outside Burmese embassies throughout the world yesterday to commemorate the tragic events in Rangoon twenty years ago. Many international personalities, including actress Mia Farrow, joined them, all calling for the immediate release of the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a swift move towards democracy. Before leaving for Beijing to attend last night's opening ceremony for the Olympics, President Bush and his wife Laura added their support to the cause during their visit to Thailand.
"The spirit of 8.8.88 must never be allowed to die," said a leading spokesperson for the exiled opposition, Zin Linn, who participated in the mass pro-democracy demonstrations twenty years ago. Although there had been sporadic street protests and demonstrations for almost a year, the mass strike and rally called on August 8, 1988 marked a major turning point for the pro-democracy movement. The date was chosen because it was meant to be auspicious -- a reflection of the deep-rooted superstition that grips almost all Burmese.
Hundreds of thousands of students, civil servants and monks marched through Rangoon -- then the capital -- calling for democracy and an end to military rule. These protests grew, bringing Burma to a standstill for weeks and threatening to topple the country's one-party state. The universities had been shut several months earlier, after the initial student protests, and student leaders emerged to command the movement.
"We felt that there was no justice or freedom. So we decided we had to bring about an uprising that would end single-party rule," said one of these leaders, Aung Din -- now exiled in the US.
"We called for 'Democracy,' but none of us knew what it meant at the time," said another student activist, Aung Naing Oo -- now exiled in Thailand. "We had to look it up in the dictionary -- but we knew we wanted freedom and an end to military repression."
Six weeks after the start of the mass protests, on September 18, 1988, the army moved against the protesters, crushing the democratic movement. Thousands of students and activists died, as the military mercilessly crushed the protests. The foreign minister at the time, Ohn Gyaw, in an interview in Rangoon a few years after the events, insisted that only four people died, and that they were killed in the stampede, and not by soldiers' guns.
Most analysts suggest that some 3,000 people died in the military's mopping up operations, while many military officials openly admit -- albeit privately -- that at least 6,000 perished. In fact, a military intelligence officer close to the former intelligence chief, now under house arrest, told The Daily Star recently that General Kin Nyunt's own assessment was that more than 10,000 people were killed. "Many bodies were quietly cremated so that there was no evidence of the massacre," he said.
Since then, there seems to have been very little movement towards genuine political change. Many Burmese believed that, with twenty years of no progress, Burma is destined to remain under a military dictatorship for decades to come. "What is certain is that change will only come from within the country," said Aung Zaw, editor of the independent Burmese news website and magazine, Irrawaddy. "But more than that, I cannot predict."
Hopes of a new era were again raised last year, when the country's monks joined the street protests against the military regime, spawning a new movement dubbed the "Saffron Revolution." Again, the military's only course of action was to crush the movement with brutal force. The country's activists were jailed or forced underground.
But last year's events showed that things have changed in Burma over the last twenty years, even if much of it is intangible. For years, many local Burmese businessmen have described Burma as a social volcano ready to erupt -- all it needs is a spark, and that could come any time.
No one wants a repeat of the massive social upheaval that happened in the wake of the events of August twenty years ago. What most people don't understand is that the "people's movement" twenty years' ago came very close to toppling the military government.
"We were on the brink of giving into the protesters," the senior intelligence officer, Brigadier General Thein Swe -- now serving 197 years in prison for corruption and treason -- told a close confidante. "If the demonstrations had gone on for another two weeks, we would have been forced to give up and withdraw back to the barracks," he mused.
But the protesters gave up first -- leaving thousands dead -- and even more were forced to flee abroad. More than a quarter of a million Burmese have sought political refuge since the end of the student-led protests 20 years ago. The first batch took months to trudge through the jungles in Burma's border areas close to China, India and Thailand. They had to elude Burmese troops who would have killed them on sight, and suffered illness and disease on the way -- many were decimated by diarrhea, malaria, dengue fever and starvation.
Thousands have poignant personal stories of tragedy. Many left behind their parents and siblings; others left their own young offspring behind in the care of their grandparents, as they would not have survived the arduous journey to freedom. These young children have grown into adults without having known or seen their parents.
Although the "Saffron Revolution" cannot be compared too closely to the events twenty years ago, it did politicise a new generation of students -- all of whom are too young to remember 1988. They are likely to return to the streets as the root causes of last year's protests -- spiralling food and fuel prices have now been resolved. But one lesson of the last twenty years is that protests do not always produce political change.
"You can expect spontaneous demonstrations against the military -- but the problem is that you have to be organised," said Min Zin, a leading political activist who fled Burma more than a decade ago and is currently studying in the US. "My concern is whether it can lead to a genuine political change."
The junta now has forced the country to ratify a new constitution, which essentially institutionalises military rule, and promised a fresh election within the next two years. Burma's military rulers face a quandary, for they now have to garner the public's support as they seek to move from military to civilian government as outlined in the new constitution.
So the next two years will be uncertain as the regime prepares for these polls.
"It is in times of uncertainty that protest and change seem to happen in Burma," the independent Burmese academic at Chiang Mai University, Win Min, told The Daily Star. "The next two years are likely to be volatile -- with more protests, led by the monks and the students, are almost certain."

Larry Jagan contributes regularly to The Daily Star from Bangkok. He is a former Current Affairs Editor, Asia, BBC World Service, and covered the 1988 events in Burma.

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