Burma’s “88 Generation” activists commemorate the 24th anniversary of the famed democracy uprising on Wednesday. Min Ko Naing, or “Conqueror of Kings,” was one of the leaders of the 1988 nationwide demonstration and is preparing to hold a commemorative event in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, along with close colleagues.
To the surprise of many, including Min Ko Naing and other veteran activists now in their late 40s or early 50s, some unexpected guests arrived at around 4 pm on Tuesday. Two prominent government ministers, Soe Thein and Aung Min, who are very close to President Thein Sein and have been involved in recent ceasefire talks with ethnic armed groups, appeared at a monastery in Mandalay to meet the 88 Generation.
The Naypyidaw representatives said that they came to pay their respects on the day and donated one million kyat to the group. They also confirmed that their visit came with the official blessing of the president himself. This move no doubt appeased the dissident community.
In contrast, on July 7 students and activists were prevented from holding an anniversary event to mark the historic Students Union building being demolished in 1962 amid young protestors ruthlessly being gunned down. Some activists were briefly detained last month but later released.
Thein Sein was stationed in Sagaing Division when the popular uprising took place in Burma. He was a young army officer who reportedly captured some student activists attempting to flee to the India-Burma border after the brutal military coup of September 1988. However, he did not detain or arrest any but instead sent them home.
Recently, Thein Sein received backing from the international community for his political reform program including negotiations with minority and ethnic political parties.
Meetings, according to opposition members, have been warm and candid. Thein Sein has thus gained more confidence to work closely with all sectors of society to achieve much-needed national reconciliation.
Political analysts also suggest that ministers close to the president are making bold moves to reach out to several political groups in order to build an image of an “understanding government.”
Thein Sein plans to meet 88 Generation Students in the near future although the exact date has not yet been fixed, according to government sources. Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, the latter also a charismatic group leader who spent several years in prison, have confirmed that they plan to meet the president.
Political analysts also admit that this exposes divisions in Thein Sein’s administration, as several cabinet ministers and conservative factions in the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party feel left behind and outcast as “hardliners.”
Some ministers who still serve in the current government were former army officers known to be involved in the 1988 killings. The previous regime never admitted the armed forces’ involvement in slaughtering unarmed civilians, activists and monks in broad daylight.
The regime instead blamed “destructive elements” and both right and left wing involvement as well as conspiracies to usurp state power to justify its clampdown and bloody coup. So far there has been no independent commission to investigate the 1988 massacre in which at least 3,000 people died.
Several ministers, who are also involved in various corruption cases and scandals, have reportedly been undermining Thein Sein’s political reforms. The president was due to reshuffle his cabinet and remove certain disruptive figures but delayed the decision for unknown reasons. Political pundits, however, suggest that he faces an internal power struggle and had to postpone the move.
Recently, the Ministry of Information shut two publications and increased media censorship. Information Minister Kyaw Hsan has been dubbed a hardliner and reports suggest that he will soon be purged from the cabinet. Several other ministers who are also considered dishonest and incompetent are due to share a similar fate.
However, the government has not yet nominated a new vice-president—previous incumbent Tin Aung Myint Oo abruptly resigned in May for health reasons. Until this vacant seat is filled, and with the powerful armed forces obliged to nominate the replacement, the reformist credentials of the Thein Sein’s government remain in question, despite what benign intentions he may have personally.