A Human Rights Day When Myanmar’s Junta Lived Up to its Reputation
By Kyaw Zwa Moe 10 December 2020
In late 1991—three years after the military government’s massacre of protesters to suppress the 1988 pro-democracy uprising—a group of Rangoon University students showed the world that the flame of democracy had not been extinguished entirely in Myanmar. On Dec. 10—Human Rights Day—they staged a demonstration showing their support for detained Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and calling on the junta to step down. As expected, the government responded with mass arrests, torture and draconian prison sentences. To remember the ’10-D’ protests, as they are now known, we revisit this commentary written for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) in 2001 and first published by The Irrawaddy in 2018.
Few people outside the country of Burma can understand the images and memories that are rolled into the simple expression “10-D.” For some democracy and student activists involved, it signifies their beliefs, sacrifices made, risks taken as well as the lost lives of their compatriots who died fighting for a cause they deeply believed in.
10-D is a concept rich in symbolism and at the same time difficult to express in words. Those who truly understand the meaning of it will never forget it, especially those who have languished inside the walls of Burma’s prisons.
After the Burmese military crushed the 1988 calls for democracy by massacring thousands of peaceful demonstrators throughout Burma, peaceful demonstrations and political rallies of any sort ceased to exist in Burma and universities around the country have also been closed. However, one request of the democracy activists that was granted by the ruling military regime was the promise of a democratic election in Burma. In 1990 the military regime held that election. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory.
Governments around the world recognized the results and Burmese citizens were exuberant over the outcome. Regardless of the celebration, the ruling junta, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) did not recognize these elections in any way.
A year passed with the election continuing to go unrecognized and it had been three years since the massacre of 1988. The regime had almost, so they thought, totally extinguished the flame of democracy in Burma. To those in the movement it was a flame that would continuously burn for the sake of the country and to those that had already given their lives to the cause. Therefore, it became essential to re-ignite the fire at all costs.
Early in 1991 the government had reopened the universities after a three-year closure. Towards the end of 1991 the students had begun to mobilize again. Then on human rights day, Dec. 10, as NLD-leader Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia for her efforts to restore democracy in Burma, the students chose to re-light the democracy flame.
During the morning of Dec. 10, 1991 some university students lit a fire during a peaceful demonstration at Rangoon University to show their support for Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and to show their disapproval of the ruling junta, now renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Soon, hundreds of students joined them and were actively taking part in the Dec. 10 demonstration. The students were demanding that the junta step down and recognize the election results, free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and release all students being detained for their participation in previous demonstrations. The students marched up and down the famous main avenue of the campus, Adipati Avenue, chanting slogans and denouncing the injustices of their government. The desire to demonstrate appeared to be contagious as students the following day at the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) instigated similar movements on their campus and students at Mandalay University attempted the same.
Before these demonstrations even began the students realized the magnitude of resistance they would face for attempting to reinvigorate the democracy movement. The military regime’s reputation for handling situations of this nature was one of violence and hate. The regime’s attitude is to retain power at all cost whether that means the use of simple intimidation or the outright slaughtering of innocent people. But the students were convinced that it was their civil duty to candidly express their will and desire to live in a fair and free society as well as to bring to light the atrocities committed by their government. Although the students were too young to shoulder the burden of a country in such dire straits, it was their belief that they had to at least try.
On this day the junta, once again, lived up to its barbaric and violent reputation. When they finally descended upon the demonstrators, hundreds of students were forcibly rounded up, beaten and thrown in jail ending yet another peaceful protest in utter violence. At that time the military regime again shut down all universities and colleges in Burma, fearing that the small fire of democracy lit in Rangoon may burst into flames throughout the country. The students who were arrested that day were severely beaten and tortured in the interrogation centers of the Military Intelligence (MI). After three months of mental and physical abuse, the military tribunals, organized solely for political activists after the 1988 Uprising, handed down sentences from ten-to-twenty years to all of the 136 students arrested that day, including a number of female students. This was the first large-scale student demonstration since the 1988 Uprising, where thousands of innocent Burmese were killed.
Ironically, these same students who fought so hard for freedom and democracy and struggled to bring it to the citizens of their homeland, entirely lost their own personal freedom that day. They were plucked from the warm net of their family and friends and thrown into a totally unfamiliar and uninviting environment. They were now to enter a place with lifeless gray walls, cold-iron bars, heavy shackles and bone-crushing bludgeons. Just three months before they were thumbing through text-books, and enjoying the campus life and the education that was deemed so necessary by them. Once inside the walls of prison, the warden and guards dictated their every move and any remaining memories of a student’s life came to a bitter end. Since these students were incarcerated for participating in the Dec. 10 movement, once in prison they became known as the “10-D” group.
At this point not only was a formal education out of the question but any reading and writing was totally prohibited and punishment for breaking these rules was extreme. Any political prisoner found in possession of the tiniest piece of blank-paper or any written document was to be housed in solitary confinement in iron shackles for two-to-three months. If any paper was found concerning politics another seven years was to be added to their sentence. Sanctioned education of any sort for political prisoners in Burma is not only against the law but looked at as subversive and unnecessary. This may surprise some, but for Burma’s 2,000 political prisoners this is a part of everyday life.
These individuals, after facing such arduous and inescapable obstacles, were robbed of the youthful opportunities they so deserved. Although many have been released they still battle incurable diseases and they still battle incurable diseases and mental illnesses that were contracted during their long-term imprisonment. Even now, almost ten years after the 10-D group still languish in the notorious gulags of Burma despite completing their sentences. Regardless of their immutable pasts their fight continues as they are still struggling to bring democracy, freedom and justice to the country they love, totally heedless of their own personal freedom.
The article first appeared in “Spirit for Survival,” a collection of true stories about life under military rule, published by Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) in 2001.