Burma: waiting for the dawn

Kyi May Kaung
8 August 2008

1988 was one of those cataclysmic years that resulted in a supernova or stellar explosion, with an associated release of tremendous cosmic energy. The convulsions of politics may seem small by comparison, but for the Burmese people who rose against their military rulers on 8 August 1988 the coincidence is telling. The twentieth anniversary of "8-8-88" is marked with the junta still in power, its repressive apparatus entrenched; but for those who remember or took part in the epic events of that time, the energy and the inspiration remain indelible.

Kyi May Kaung is an analyst based in Washington DC. She is on the Technical Advisory Network of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), Burma's democratic government-in-exile. Her blog is here Also by Kyi May Kaung in openDemocracy:

"Burma's struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi's role" (8 August 2006)

"A reality-check in Burma" (10 November 2006)

The explosion of 1988 began when the death of a student after a minor teashop dispute near the Rangoon Institute of Technology sparked massive, peaceful demonstrations in favour of democracy which spread to all major towns and cities in the country. The protestors - students, monks, lay people, navy officers and other groups - soon designated their movement the Shiseishii Ayédawpon ("the 88 revolution"). They were also, at the start, without any visible leader; so they carried pictures of the father of Burma's independence from Britain in 1948, the martyred Aung San, who was assassinated with almost his entire cabinet in 1947.

In one of those remarkable symbioses of history, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi was in Rangoon at the time. This largely non-political figure was soon propelled to the forefront of the democracy movement. She and the party she founded, the National League for Democracy (NLD) became the political expression of the "88 revolution".

The protestors were met with pitiless violence and repression, but they were not deterred. The uprising continued, until it was quelled by the severe crackdown of 18 September 1988. The military leader Ne Win had infamously warned: "When the army shoots, it shoots to kill." An estimated 3,000 Burmese citizens died. This was a year before the massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, perpetrated by the Burmese regime's strongest ally.

It wasn't the first time the army had shot unarmed civilians. In 1962, after his first coup, Ne Win's government shot students on 7 July, another of the dates Burmese commemorate. In 1967, it distracted attention from rice shortages by instigating anti-Chinese riots. In 1974, students hijacked the remains of the Burma-born United Nations secretary-general U Thant. There was another bloody clampdown.

Also in openDemocracy on Burma:

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Burma and the ICRC: a people at risk" (15 December 2006)

Aung Zaw, "Burma's question" (12 September 2007)

Joakim Kreutz, "Burma: protest, crackdown - and now?" (3 October 2007)

Robert Semeniuk, "A chronic emergency: on the Burma-Thailand border" (10 October 2007)

Aung Zaw, "Burma: the cyclone and the referendum" (6 May 2008)

Wylie Bradford, "Burma: cyclone, aid and sanctions" (27 May 2008)

Henry Brown, "Burma's rage" (8 August 2008) The twenty years since 1988 are dominated by the continuing repression of the Burmese people. Many pro-democracy activists have died along the way: the writer Thawka, the poet Tin Moe, the Karen leaders Saw Bo Mya and Pado Mahn Sha (the latter assassinated in Mae Sot in February 2008); the Shan leader (and former prince) Chao Tzang Yawnghwe in 2004, my friend Taw Myo Myint in California in 2005. These are only a few; so many more have not lived to see this anniversary.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won a landslide victory in the elections the junta was forced to concede in 1990, but were not allowed to assume power. On the contrary: the junta - then called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), renamed in 1997 the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - defied the will of the people in a flagrant and contemptuous fashion. In this long period of alternating house-arrest and brief freedom from incarceration - for Daw Suu has always steadfastly refused to leave her beloved country and people, for fear that she would not be allowed to return - Burma's elected leader has endured almost thirteen years of imprisonment.

The latest such period started in May 2003 when her convoy was attacked by hired thugs in an incident now known as the Depayin massacre. She was prevented from joining the "saffron revolution" of September 2007, but before and after this latest explosion the clothes she wore in public appearances sent their own messages: golden yellow when she met the marching monks, red for courage when she met the United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

The next dawn

The unfinished work of 1988 has been carried on by many organisations and groups born of that moment or inspired by it. They include the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB, the Burmese democratic government in exile), the Burma Fund, the US Campaign for Burma, the Burma Campaign UK (BCUK), the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, Burma (AAPPB), the Democractic Voice of Burma (DVB), the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine edited by my fellow openDemocracy contributor Aung Zaw. This list is far from exhaustive: the democratic spirit of the revolution has extended its energies far and wide, building solidarities across Burma's diaspora and extending support to their hard-pressed compatriots.

On 2 May 2008, cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy delta and resulted in an estimated 134,000 deaths and untold suffering. The junta's notoriety grew even further when it refused to allow in much of the international aid that was offered. The regime effectively hoodwinked the world, including United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon; for the UN estimates that up to $10m (40% of the aid money) may have been lost due to the junta's insistence on unrealistic official exchange-rates which work in its favour. The total leakage, including direct theft, is likely to be much more.

The SPDC has made the most of its regional ties with governments friendly to it (and thus indifferent to the conditions of its people) on account of Burma's rich natural resources and the benefits they offer. The newly discovered Shwe natural-gas reserves in western Burma are a further boost to the junta's coffers.

The regime survived 1988 as it had those earlier dangerous moments; now it hopes that the coincidence of the opening of the Beijing Olympics will divert the world's attention from the 8-8-88 anniversary. But the Burmese people, supported by Burmese demonstrators around the world, won't let it be forgotten. They know that this is a pathological system which - like that whose collapse was heralded by the fall of the Berlin wall - cannot survive. Democracy is stronger than bullying. Burma's people are stronger than their rulers. When the next moment in an epic struggle for democracy arrives, the Shiseishii Ayédawpon will be its foundation.

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