Former Irrawaddy reporter Min Naing Thu was a child when anti-government demonstrations of 1988 reached Monywa, Sagaing Region. In this Aug. 6, 2010 article he describes his experience of leaving classes to join the demonstrations, and their bloody end.
When I first heard the word “Tha-beik-hmauk [protest],” in broadcasts by the Burmese service of the BBC, the expression was completely new to me, a 10-year-old living in Monywa. My parents tuned into the service every night, and I often heard that word used in the news programs without knowing what it meant.
It wasn’t long before I got to understand what Tha-beik-hmauk meant when the students’ demonstrations broke out in August 1988. By that time, I had moved on to the fifth grade of high school in my home town, Monywa.
My school had only reopened one month earlier when the demonstrations broke out. Students from Rangoon University and 10th grade pupils gathered at the school and raised the fighting peacock flag—the first time I had seen the emblem.
The teachers did nothing to stop the demonstration, advising students to listen attentively to the speeches being made. They were full of declarations like “Soldiers rape female students … Our country is impoverished … We have to overthrow Ne Win’s government … We have to rise up against the evil BSPP system.”
The following day, the teachers joined the demonstrations and the school closed.
Happy that lessons were over, I joined friends as they gathered by the school’s flagpole.
I was given three pieces of ba-yar-kyaw [an Indian style snack of fried mashed beans and spices].
“To avoid bay-ba-yar [“danger”], let’s eat Ba-yar-kyaw and march,” said a teacher in a play of words that got us laughing as we paraded through the streets, chanting slogans and accepting gifts of food, water and sweets from the town’s residents.
In mid-August, a central camp was established for protestors in Monywa. We gathered at the camp at the end of each day of demonstrations and engaged in discussions and political speeches. Civil servants had also now joined the protests, which we learnt from BBC broadcasts were countrywide.
After one month, in late September, army units took up positions in Monywa and our teachers told us to return home and stay there.
One night we heard gunfire and my uncle, who was visiting us, identified it as the noise of automatic weapons.
“Are students being killed?” he exclaimed. “I can’t just sit still. I must go.” And he disappeared into the night.
There were reports that troops had raided our camp and high school. In the morning I accompanied my mother to market and saw bloodstains on the streets—including in our school courtyard, where a discarded green school sarong was additional evidence of the night of violence.