On Aug. 8, 2000, The Irrawaddy marked the twelfth anniversary of the 8888 uprising with an appeal for a full recounting of the bloodshed. Without coming to terms with its past, it would never be able to move forward, it argued.
August is the cruelest month. For every person who experienced Burma’s democracy summer of 1988, August will always be remembered as a month of bloodshed and crushed hopes. For it was in August 1988 that literally millions of Burmese from every walk of life joined to demand an end to more than a quarter-century of unenlightened despotism, only to be gunned down in untold numbers throughout the country.
Horrifying images crowd the mind of every person who witnessed this deadly massacre: endless gunfire and the relentless advance of soldiers bearing down on unarmed crowds; bullet-riddled corpses in the streets; the innocent faces and blood-stained uniforms of murdered schoolchildren; smoke billowing non-stop for days from the crematoria of city cemeteries.
Resurrecting these memories might almost seem to compound this unmitigated cruelty; but properly understood, the impulse to revisit this traumatic episode in Burmese history can be seen as an act of resistance.
In the pages that follow, we offer our own small contribution to the on-going struggle to understand what really happened in August 1988, in an effort to confront and correct willful distortions of history.
Establishing the culpability of the perpetrators of the Black August atrocities would, of course, require immeasurably more than the contents of these few pages. But it is not our purpose here to assign blame for these events: Our goal now is simply to add a few more facts to the bulwark of historical research, as a defense against a rising tide of lies that would portray the massive popular uprising of 1988 as merely a series of “disturbances” instigated by hooligans and political opportunists.
But if Burma is ever to achieve a genuine reconciliation, the question of who bears responsibility for the innumerable deaths recorded here and elsewhere must one day be answered. History will not be kind to those who turned the once-respected Tatmadaw against the very people it was intended to defend; but the people of Burma could surely forgive, if only they were given a chance to know the whole truth so that they might finally be able to put the past to rest.
As the Burmese people, at home or in exile, mark their twelfth Black August in silent remembrance or in angry protest, the world is watching for signs of reconciliation, ready to assist in the task of rebuilding the country.
A full disclosure of the truth about the past would move Burma much closer to its goal of realizing its tremendous potential as a nation. Without it, Burma will remain a pariah state, deeply divided and incapable of functioning as a member of the world community. It is up to the country’s rulers to decide whether denying the past is worth sacrificing the future.