To mark the 30th anniversary of the 1988 uprising, The Irrawaddy is revisiting some of its past articles about the event. In this article from August 2008, the author reflects on what the country’s democracy movement had achieved over the first 20 years.
In this 20th year of Burma’s democracy movement it’s time to ask what it has achieved in those two decades. Is it any nearer now to its goal?
For answers, one only needs to look at the fates of five veterans of the events of August 1988. They marched together in those days of hope and bloodshed. And where are they now?
In hiding somewhere in Rangoon is Tun Myint Aung, a 20-year-old student in 1988. Since then he has been in and out of five different prisons. Now he’s on the run, a 40-year-old activist who has seen enough of prison life.
In exile in Mae Sot, Thailand—Tin Aye, who spent 16 years in jail after participating in the 1988 uprising. Exile offers him his only hope of freedom now.
In a cell in Insein Prison, Rangoon—Noble Aye, Tin Aye’s girlfriend, finds herself serving a second sentence in Burma’s most notorious jail.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand—Aung Naing Oo and Nyo Ohn Myint, who also chose exile rather than a life on the run from a ruthless regime. Back in Rangoon, the youth wing of the National League for Democracy (NLD) that Nyo Ohn Myint helped to found still works against all odds to keep the movement alive. Aung Naing Oo used to be foreign affairs secretary of Burma’s only student army, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, which was founded in 1988.
These five individuals, representatives of thousands facing oppression in Burma and hardship abroad, provide a picture of Burma’s pro-democracy movement and of the political makeup of a country ruled for the past 46 years by authoritarianism and militarism.
Although their individual lives took different routes, they share one common goal—the establishment of democracy in their tortured country.
After 20 years, that aim seems as elusive as ever. But why?
It’s no longer a question of the inability of an incapable junta to run the country or of its ruthless repression of its own people. Nor is it a question of the failure of pressure by the international community and sanctions.
Perhaps 20 years is not long enough for fundamental change to occur in a country ruled for so long by a repressive regime, even though it seems like an eternity for dissidents who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of democracy. Many believe it’s time for serious soul searching, which could lead to a new impetus.
“I think our politicians are naïve and no more than activists,” said activist-turned-political analyst Aung Naing Oo. “They don’t know how to take power and they have no strategic policies. In the 1988 uprising, political leaders just followed the people, they didn’t lead the people.”
It wasn’t for want of trying, however. Soon after students initiated the popular uprising, influential figures and politicians joined the movement and tried to lead it—including Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San.
The country was overwhelmed by a mood of exuberance and a general hope for democratic change and the end of authoritarian rule. But it was all a mirage.
“Never in our history did we have such an excellent combination of influential political figures, such as Daw Suu, U Aung Gyi and U Nu,” said Aung Naing Oo. “But sadly, those leaders couldn’t grab that opportunity. Such a window of opportunity at the right moment could not stay open for long.
“Unfortunately, those three influential figures followed their own path, ignoring unity. If they had been united, the story might have turned out differently.
“When the military couldn’t control the country anymore, they should have been united, forming an interim government or offering negotiations under a civilian government.”
There was a civilian government in place, led by Dr Maung Maung who was appointed president after the overthrow of Ne Win and his successor Sein Lwin, the “butcher of Rangoon.”
One of the 1988 movement’s terrible failures was indeed its lack of unity. Most activists and politicians approached on that question by The Irrawaddy admitted as much.
Unity was—and still is—the one thing that strikes fear in the heart of any authoritarian government. It was the most effective weapon Burma’s pro-democracy forces could hope to wield, yet it never came within their grasp. The lack of unity provided room for the authoritarian, military regime.
Even the main opposition party, the NLD, formed under the leadership of such influential figures as Aung San Suu Kyi, former Brig-Gen Aung Gyi and former Gen Tin Oo, was unable to achieve unity.
Aung Gyi, for instance, broke ranks and formed his own party.
Divisions within the anti-authoritarian forces existed long before the events of 1988, noted Tin Aye, a leader of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions during the uprising. “We were divided since we resisted British rule in the early 20th century,” he said.
Tin Aye recalled one meeting in 1988 where an initiative for cooperation again failed because of lack of unity. “People say it’s because of the divide-and-rule policy practiced by the British colonizers. But if you’re strong and united enough, no one can divide you.”
Standing for truth and justice isn’t enough, according to Tun Myint Aung, a leader of the influential 88 Generation Students group, all of whose leaders are now in prison. “We firmly hold to truth and justice. But I saw that just holding those virtues in our hands didn’t work.
“No one can deny that we are on the side of truth and the people. And we continue to think that that’s why we have to win this struggle one day. But the question is: when will that day come? In the days of our great-grandchildren?”
The opposition movement was prepared to make more sacrifices, he said. “But what we have to consider seriously is whether our sacrifices alone will actually bring victory.”
Since 1988, thousands of political activists were thrown into the junta’s notorious prisons and jails and at least 137 political prisoners have died behind bars, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). Following the harsh crackdown on the 1988 uprising, hundreds of thousands of activists were forced into exile.
Tun Myint Aung said that apart from being prepared for personal sacrifice, political leaders should focus more on practical strategy, clear leadership and unity.
One of the policies almost all political leaders stuck to in the 1988 uprising and in later years, particularly after the 1990 election, was to push the military back into the barracks, its natural home. Suu Kyi was among those who pressed this policy, recalling that when her father founded the Burmese army he had said its role was not to oppress the people.
Nyo Ohn Myint, now head of the foreign affairs committee of the exiled National League for Democracy (Liberated Area), said: “I think that approach was extreme. One of our weak policies was to say: ‘you are with us or against us.’
“There was no middle position. You couldn’t become a political leader unless you used ruder, harsher, more insulting words against the military regime.”
Consequently, both sides always approached each other with annihilation rather than compromise in mind, he said.
“The NLD was proud of itself after winning a landslide in the 1990 elections,” Nyo Ohn Myint said.
“The result of the election made the party members ambitious beyond reality. They wanted the political upper-hand.” Viewing the result of the 1990 election as an “end game” was totally wrong, he said.
Most NLD politicians wanted the regime to hand over the power to the party, but this only resulted in the military leaders moving still further away from national reconciliation, according to Nyo Ohn Myint.
Burma in 1988 and the early 1990s was a “battlefield,” he said. “Daw Suu resembled a commander and our soldiers were the people. We appeared to be waging war against a real, strong army. When our ‘troops’ were destroyed by the military, we couldn’t rebuild our forces.
“At that time, most of us [activists as well as politicians] just had three or four months experience in politics, but we became policy makers in the NLD,” said Nyo Ohn Myint. “Wrongly, we injected our emotions into NLD policy. In fact, it was just a bull fight.”
The majority of the Burmese people approved of such a strong stance and were against compromise, Nyo Ohn Nyint said. “All of us thought the perfect victory would come soon after seeing the huge uprising of 1988.”
Aung Naing Oo said: “Bogyoke [independence hero Aung San] liked a line from the poem ‘Invictus’ by the British poet William Earnest Henley: ‘My head is bloody, but unbowed.’ We’ve also grown up with such courage.” Then he added: “On the other hand, we need engagement.”
Aung Naing Oo said it was hardly surprising that opposition political leaders were against compromise with the military regime since they couldn’t achieve it among themselves.
His appeal was: “Don’t isolate the army and don’t put them in the dark. We need to try to get them out into the light. Otherwise, change won’t happen.”
No one knew how to persuade the military leaders to move into the light, however. History has shown that the junta has never had the political will.
Aung Naing Oo believed the NLD should announce a clear power-sharing proposal to the junta rather than call for unconditional dialogue for national reconciliation.
“Burmese politics is polarized,” he said. “Perhaps we might need to find extreme solutions.
Can we annihilate the junta by bombing it? It’s impossible. How about complete engagement with the junta? That’s impossible too.”
A middle way of negotiation “doesn’t work either,” he said.
“So we seriously need to do some soul searching. We need a result-oriented way of thinking about how to proceed. It would be fine to have made mistakes for just one or two years—but not for 20 years.”