The Irrawaddy

30 Years On, Aspirations of ’88 Uprising Still Elusive

YANGON — Thirty years ago this week, the rain-slicked roads of downtown Yangon ground to a halt as Myanmar trembled with the people’s determination to oust dictator Ne Win, who had been oppressing them since 1962.

On Aug. 8, the entire country took to the streets with columns of demonstrators from all walks of life joining in, demanding democracy and asking the authorities to abolish the dictator’s one-party rule.

Named after that nationwide protest on Aug. 8, 1988, the 8888 uprising was a major shift in Myanmar’s modern history. Political analysts at home and abroad agree that, despite ending in a bloody military coup, the uprising raised the public’s political awareness, which in turn paved the way for changes that brought Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to power 28 years later.

“We joined it because we could no longer bear the rule. All we wanted at the time was to kick the government out,” said Ko Mya Aye, one of the student leaders from Yangon University who joined the protest. He is one of the members of the ’88 Generation Students, a prominent former student activist group named after the uprising they were an important part of.

With the country now gearing up to mark the 30th anniversary of the uprising on Wednesday, this is the time to reflect on the legacy of a movement that saw hundreds of protesters shot dead or sentenced to long prison sentences for their involvement.

“I have to say that Myanmar now is not fully where we envisioned it would be in 1988,” Ko Mya Aye said on Monday.

Despite their unanimous call for full-fledged democracy in 1988, Ko Mya Aye said, Myanmar today is coping with a guided democracy based on a military-drafted constitution and is still accused of being undemocratic despite an elected civilian government led by the NLD.

“As we don’t have a full-fledged democracy, equality among ethnicities and their self-determination are still far away,” he said.

Fellow student leader U Ko Ko Gyi agreed with his friend but said that Myanmar has seen some political progress over the past three decades.

He noted the end of one-party rule, vibrant student and trade unions across the country and a democratically elected government as positive changes brought about by the uprising.

“But with 25 percent of reserved seats for the military in Parliament and three important ministries [defense, border affairs and home affairs] in its grasp, full-fledged democracy in Myanmar has a long way to go,” he said.

U Ko Ko Gyi also lamented that there has been little progress settling the ongoing fighting between ethnic armed groups and the military or forming a democratic federal union.

“We all have to work hard for them,” he said.

Celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the ’88 uprising are now underway at Yangon University and will run until Wednesday with exhibitions and public discussions on topics including ethnic equality, federalism, dictatorship, Myanmar politics and the three decades of the democratic movement.