Ahead of the silver jubilee anniversary of Burma’s 1988 popular uprising, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged President Thein Sein to commit to an independent investigation and fair prosecutions of officials and commanders responsible for the mass killing of pro-democracy protesters 25 years ago.
The New York-based international human rights watchdog said Burma’s friends and donors should make clear that genuine reform in Burma means ensuring justice for victims of the 1988 massacres and other serious human rights violations perpetrated by the former military regime.
The 1988 uprising, which nearly toppled the military junta, was brutally crushed by the Burmese Army in a suppression campaign that killed thousands of protesters and injured countless more.
“The mass killings 25 years ago in Burma are an unaddressed open wound that challenges the government’s rhetoric of reform,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The government should shed itself of 50 years of denial about military abuses by showing that it stands with the Burmese people and not with the killers of the past,” he added.
The nationwide uprising that peaked on Aug. 8, 1988, was joined by hundreds of thousands of students, Buddhist monks, civil servants and ordinary citizens. The intensity of the uprising shocked the military regime, which finally ordered a lethal crackdown on the protests, with troops firing on the unarmed demonstrators.
Daily protests continued through most of August and September as the crackdown became more violent. Some protesters fled, seeking refuge in neighboring countries, while others fought back.
Bertil Lintner, a veteran Swedish journalist who has written several books about Burma, told The Irrawaddy that the wounds of 1988 persisted.
“It is obvious that the atrocities committed in 1988 have not been forgotten, and the people in power cannot go on pretending that it’s not an issue, or, as President Thein Sein [does], go on claiming that the military ‘saved the country’ by killing unarmed demonstrators.”
“Human Rights Watch is right: Those responsible for the massacres should be brought to justice,” Lintner added.
The pro-democracy group Burma Campaign UK went a step further on Wednesday, demanding that Thein Sein “reveal the exact role he played in suppressing the uprising.”
“Thein Sein spent 40 years as a soldier in one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships, including during the crushing of the uprising in 1988,” said Anna Roberts, executive director of Burma Campaign UK. “It is time Thein Sein acknowledged past human rights abuses and came clean about his own role in past abuses.”
Citing a leaked US diplomatic cable from 2004 that said Thein Sein “distinguished himself” in the 1988 crackdown, the London-based advocacy group said the president should take the 25th anniversary to address his role in the rights abuses for the first time.
“These abuses need to be investigated and those responsible held to account,” Roberts continued, echoing HRW’s appeal. “At the same time it must be remembered that in Thein Sein’s Burma, abuses are not a thing of the past, they are a daily fact of life. The international community should be paying more attention to the fact that despite reforms, serious human rights abuses have continued since Thein Sein became president.”
HRW on Tuesday also reiterated its call to the Burmese government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and repeal laws still used to prevent or curtail peaceful protests.
“If the government recognizes past atrocities and commits to accountability, the anniversary of 8.8.88 could be a pivotal moment in addressing decades of repressive rule. It could even be the start of a new era if the military and government move from denial to admission and from impunity to justice,” Adams said.
Additional reporting by Andrew D. Kaspar.