On Thursday Burmese people around the country commemorated the 25th Anniversary of the 1988 People’s Democracy Revolution. In the past, no remembrances were allowed to mark the 8888 anniversary in Burma, and this year heavy police security was be seen in big cities, especially in Rangoon (Yangon) around Shwedagon Pagoda.
The uprising was violently suppressed on 8- 8-88 by the then-ruling military junta in which Thein Sein and several senior military officers in the existing quasi-civilian government were complicit.
In September 1987, Burma’s then dictator General Ne Win brought the economy to its knees by abruptly revoking certain values currency notes. As a superstitious man, he wanted only 45 and 90 kyat denomination notes in circulation. He made such foolish decision because they were divisible by nine, which he considered a lucky number for his destiny.
As people’s savings were wiped out overnight, protests in relation to the swelling economic catastrophe were sparked by the students of Burma, particularly in Rangoon.
On 13 March 1988, students protesting in front of the Rangoon Institute of Technology clashed with police and military personnel and some students, including Phone Maw, a fourth year engineering student, were shot dead. The students’ deaths provoked more and more mass protests, which drew ordinary citizens and Burma’s monks into the protests.
On 8 August 1988 – ‘known as 8-8-88 Democracy Movement’ – hundreds of thousands of people took part in protests across the country, calling for democracy. During this time, dissenting newspapers published, banners of fighting-peacock were flying everywhere, coordinated demonstrations were held and many democratic speakers appeared in public meetings.
On 26 August, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence icon Aung San who had come back to Burma to look after her ailing mother, made a speech at Shwedagon Pagoda and subsequently she became the public figure of the 1988 democracy movement.
On August 8, 1988, oldiers gunned down protesters using automatic rifles. They sprayed bullets into crowds of dissidents. Hundreds of activists were taken away in army-trucks and most of them were never seen again. According to observers, analysts and human rights watchers, t more than 3,000 innocent citizens were killed.
Eventually, General Ne Win resigned as ruling socialist-party boss on 23 July. However, he made a last warning that “when the army shoots, it shoots in a straight line”. On 18 September, the military seized power.
After 18 September coup d’état led by the then military Chief General Saw Maung, Aung San Suu Kyi led founding the NLD, but she was put under house arrest in July 1989. Despite her detention, the NLD party won staggering 82% of the seats in Parliament in the 1990 parliamentary election, but, the military junta refused to convene the parliament and also refused to recognize the results. Since her initial arrest, Suu Kyi has been allowed only a few brief years of freedom.
Since that time on, thousands of political prisoners have been came under arbitrary arrest and thrown into jail under unfair laws and trials in the absence of their lawyers. The military government’s penal code imposed excessive sentences against political activists.
For instance, article 5 (j) of the penal code allows authorities to impose 7 to 20 year prison terms on anyone who joined in peaceful protest or showing different opinion against the regime. Another article 505 provides an indefinite prison term for criticizing the authorities’ policies or actions.
According to international legal standard, all political prisoners have committed no crime at all. So, for the current President Thein Sein government, releasing of political prisoners should be the first and foremost of the political reform urgently requires today. Subsequently, the above mentioned undemocratic laws must be done away with as a necessity for change.
According to critics and watchdogs, the 7 November 2010 election, won by the military-backed political proxies, was flawed by widespread complaints of vote rigging and the exclusion of the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest shortly after the polls.
If the Thein Sein government has decided to stick to the political reform course, it must pledge to amend the undemocratic 2008 Constitution with respect to the self-determination of the ethnic people.
Moreover, the government has to acknowledge the burning desires of the people who participated in 1988 democracy movement. Although successive military-backed rulers try to eliminate the history of 1988 people’s democracy movement, their attempts are in vain. In the same way, they also do their utmost to do away with the people’s demands in the 1988 movement.
Therefore, President Thein Sein should honor the historic 8888-uprising as a cornerstone of the country’s democracy foundation. Moreover, he needs to take accountability for the bloodshed crackdown on the 1988 pro-democracy insurrection as the students call an apology from the government.