Until two years ago, Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled by the longest-running military dictatorship in the world. In 2010, the military began to loosen its grip on the country, increasing civil freedoms and offering some political and economic opportunity for citizens.
But some are wondering whether the country can truly transition to democracy if it fails to reconcile with its brutal past.
This week marks the 25th anniversary of a violent chapter in the country’s history: the nationwide democracy uprising of Aug. 8, 1988, and the harsh military crackdown that ended it.
Despite being rich in resources, the country went into a long period of economic stagnation following a 1962 military takeover.
“The government remained in power through fear. It reached the point where people were unwilling to even mention the name of the dictator,” Ne Win, says Burt Levin, the American ambassador in Rangoon at the time. “In the summer of 1988, the population finally said, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Students began to voice their resentment over the economy and the government’s wide restrictions on personal freedom.
“We students had no hopes for any jobs after school,” says Htay Kywe, an early student leader. “We were totally lost.”
A disagreement in a tea shop between university students and people linked to the government eventually grew into a student-led movement calling for democracy in the summer of 1988.
Weeks of organizing crested with a nationwide general strike known as “8/8/88,” a date chosen for its numerological power. Thousands of people marched on the streets of Rangoon, the capital at the time, and in cities and towns around the country.
“It was like you were watching waves at the beach,” says student activist Khin Ohmar.
Demonstrators sang the national anthem and chanted slogans like, “End the military dictatorship! Daw Aye, Daw Aye! (Our cause, our cause!) To set up democracy: Daw Aye, Daw Aye!”
In Rangoon, the marchers converged at City Hall, where a festive mood prevailed into the evening.
“This is the first time people talk freely, they talk how they feel and how they suffer,” remembers Moethee Zun, another student leader.
Shortly before midnight on Aug. 8, troops opened fire on demonstrators there and elsewhere in Rangoon. Despite this, demonstrations continued to grow and spread throughout August.
“People were scared, but at the same time, the momentum continued to increase,” says Khin Ohmar. “The Buddhist monks, the housewives union — they were all joining in the street.”
A Leader Emerges
As the protests grew from a student-led movement into a nationwide uprising, people started to search for leadership. In late summer, Aung San Suu Kyi, future Nobel Laureate, stepped onto the scene.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burmese independence leader Aung San, was in the country by coincidence. She had lived abroad most of her life, and had only returned to Burma in March to take care of her ill mother.
Student activists convinced her to join the movement and, on Aug. 26, she made her first major speech at Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.
“At first I had some doubts about Aung San Suu Kyi,” says Myo Myint, a former soldier and 1988 activist who went to Shwedagon to hear her speech.
But he, like many in the crowd of half-a-million that day, was convinced by the time Suu Kyi was finished talking. The democracy movement finally had its leader.
Long-ruling dictator Ne Win had stepped down in late July, but most Burmese understood that he remained the master behind his replacements in the regime. As the protests continued through the summer, the rulers promised multi-party elections, but this failed to satisfy the demonstrators.
By September, much of the government administration had collapsed as civil servants, police units and even some soldiers joined the protests. Activists organized citizens to take up a number of basic government tasks. Student leaders and a handful of older politicians began to build what they hoped would be the foundation of a transitional government.
The Military Cracks Down
The nationwide movement came to a screeching halt on Sept. 18, when the government announced a new military ruler, imposed martial law and banned all public demonstrations. The following day the military began a coordinated crackdown across the country.
“We could see from the embassy, students cowering behind trees without any weapons, and they were being shot,” says Ambassador Levin. “It was bone chilling.”
When the shooting finally ended, approximately 3,000 people had been killed in the uprising. Another 3,000 Burmese were put in prison, and some 10,000 activists had fled the country.
Looking To Elections In 2015
In 1990, the military government finally held the elections first promised in 1988.
And, to everyone’s surprise, they were considered free and fair. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 80 percent of the parliamentary seats. The government ignored the results and rounded up a number of opposition politicians, including Suu Kyi.
She spent years under house arrest. She was released in 2010, and, last year, was elected to parliament along with a handful of other members of her National League for Democracy. She’s planning to run for president in the nationwide elections planned for 2015.
Many students who first became activists in 1988 spent much of the last 25 years in jail or in exile. Today they’re continuing their democracy and human rights work. Many of them are meeting in Rangoon this week to mark the 25th anniversary of 8/8/88.
Produced by Bruce Wallace, Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. Edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.