Tomorrow it will be exactly 25 years ago that Phone Maw was gunned down by government security forces in a compound of Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT). The 21-year-old engineering student became the first martyr among an estimated 3,000 people killed when the so-called 8888 pro-democracy uprising was brutally crushed by the military regime.
The incident in Burma’s history is commemorated by opposition politicians and rights activists as the county’s national Human Rights Day, also known as Phone Maw Day. There will be religious and political ceremonies held to mark the slaying of the student. But the question remains: who were really responsible for ordering the killing of Phone Maw and thousands of others in 1988?
“Until now, there is no proper investigation in Phone Maw’s case. We still want the government to take action,” says Myo Win, a friend of Phone Maw in the RIT, who is now Vice Chairman of All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, a dissident political group founded on Thai-Burma border after the ‘88 uprising.
Such demands for an official investigation into the former junta’s wrongdoing come not only from political activists but also from human rights lawyers.
“They must respond to the crimes committed by the former junta,” said Min Lwin Oo, a Burmese lawyer at Hong Kong-based Asia Human Rights Commission. “But it is not easy at the moment. There are no signs of interest [in an investigation] from the government and neither from the opposition, activists and any other stakeholders,” the lawyer said.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana said accountability for decades of rights violations is crucial for healing the wounds in Burmese society and to solidify the country’s reforms, according to a Reuters’ report on a UN human rights meeting in Geneva.
But he said, “This is not on the agenda of any of the stakeholders. It’s not on the government agenda, it’s not on the other political parties’ agenda and it’s not on the ethnic minority groups’ agenda.”
Soe Thein, a Minister of the President’s Office, addressed the issue in Oslo, Norway, during President Thein Sein trip to Europe in late February. “We don’t want to put this agenda in the priority lists while we are heading for democracy,” he said. “If you make it a priority the speed of our journey may be delayed. So let’s think about it later,” he warned.
When the military drafted the controversial Constitution in 2008 it included article 445, which provides immunity for all acts taken by members of the previous military government councils. “No proceeding shall be instituted against the said Councils or any member there of or any member of the Government, in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties,” it states.
And so, is there then no way to hold former junta officials responsible for the crimes they committed? Perhaps Burma needs to follow a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
This commission invited victims of rights abuses under the former apartheid-regime to give statements about their experiences. Perpetrators of violence could also testify and request amnesty from prosecution.
South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, who played an important role in the successful truth and reconciliation process, visited Rangoon recently. He met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 88- Generation Students activist Min Ko Naing and former political prisoners to explain his experience.
But so far, neither the government nor opposition politicians have reacted to his suggestion.
In this situation, what can activists do to hold a meaningful commemoration of Phone Maw and the 3,000 ‘88 martyrs at tomorrow’s ceremony? Can they just pray for them to rest in peace? Can they just recall the memory of ‘88 uprising?
This activity is not new. Burma’s exile community has marked Phone Maw Day for many years and last year, for the first time in decades, activists commemorated this event in Burma.
However, this year would be the first time that it will be held in Burma in open view of the government, which is led reformist President Thein Sein who has welcomed Suu Kyi into Burma’s military-dominated Parliament.
At this year’s ceremony the activists should discuss whether they want to push for prosecution of crimes committed against the ‘88 martyrs, or whether they want Burma to organize a truth and reconciliation commission to address the abuses.
Secondly, the activists should rebuild the monument for Phone Maw, which the students built the day after he was killed in the RIT compound. It was later destroyed by the army. If the authority will not allow it to be rebuild the activists should explain that the monument is needed to help heal the emotional wounds of the surviving ’88 victims and their families.
Thirdly, they should urge the government to allow for the construction of monuments for the victims of the ’88 uprising who were killed in Burma’s other states and divisions in March, June, August and September 1988.
The government and Parliament should at least allow these monuments to be erected in order to provide an initial source of solace for the uprising’s victims, before it is decided how to officially address the gross rights violations of 1988.
It would also be a good sign if the government could send some officials to tomorrow’s commemoration event in order to pay their respects to Phone Maw and other 88 martyrs, and to meet with their families.
These initial steps should not delay Burma’s important journey to democracy, but should be part of a larger effort to implement speedy democratic reforms and reconcile the country. Providing treatment and support for the victims of the Burmese government’s past abuses is an important part of any reconciliation plan.
Htet Aung Kyaw is a former student activist who fled to Burma’s ethnic rebel-controlled areas in 1988. He is now a freelance journalist and writer in exile.