In 1988, Myanmar hosted some of the largest demonstrations in recorded history. These began officially on Aug. 8, the supposedly auspicious “8/8/88” in a country run by “retired” generals, numerologists and soothsayers. Although Myanmar’s political volcano had been rumbling for at least a year, the world was still caught unawares by the sudden tumult in a country that had essentially been forgotten. Foreign press access was minimal. The story then got knocked off the world’s top slot when the C-130 Hercules carrying Pakistan’s president, Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, mysteriously fell out of the sky on Aug. 17.
The failed 8/8/88 rebellion lasted nearly six weeks. It followed 26 years of bizarre and xenophobic misrule by strongman Gen Ne Win. Late that year, when there was still some lingering hope of change, an old Asia hand predicted it would take at least as long to put right the damage the old general had wrought. As we look back from 25 years on, that prediction has turned out to be grimly true. A quarter century down the road, can any lessons be learned from the failures of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement in 1988?
Size does not matter
The large early demonstrations in Yangon, a city of well over 3 million at the time, mobilized virtually the entire populace of the capital. Although Myanmar was not a country with large population centers, there were similar scenes in smaller cities, including the northern capital of Mandalay, with a population of over 800,000. Given the terrible communications and transport infrastructure, the size of these protests was all the more remarkable. Indeed, one of the worst individual incidents of bloodshed followed a demonstration around a police station in Sagaing near Mandalay, a lightly populated area famous for its mist-shrouded hilltop temples.
In the second half of August and the first half of September, Yangon continued to see large, well-organized marches on a daily basis. Students, workers, civil servants, nurses, monks, nuns, schoolchildren, secret policemen, air force personnel—just about everybody who could gather behind a banner and march the streets did so, airing well justified grievances. After decades of locked-down frustration, the demonstrations were initially cathartic but of diminishing marginal value. Toward the end, there was some violence that included the beheading of up to 50 vagrants, possibly the work of provocateurs. There was also some looting. With such huge, largely peaceful turnouts, however, it was inconceivable that calls for meaningful change could be ignored—but they were.
Myanmar’s economy was moribund, there was widespread unemployment and education led nowhere. Everything from fuel to rice was in short supply, and anything manufactured, be it an aspirin or instant coffee, had to be obtained on the black market. The most resource-rich country in Southeast Asia was an economic and social shambles. It had humiliatingly been compelled to apply for “least developed country” status with the United Nations to receive aid.
When everybody has so much reason to complain, one of the biggest challenges becomes the triage of issues: finding the overlaps among all the problems that must be addressed most urgently and to best effect. In Myanmar’s case, the situation was made even more complicated by over a dozen low-intensity ethnic insurgencies which had continued to deny the central government in Yangon control of any of its frontier areas.
Thanks largely to Gen Ne Win, the military had a dismal track record on reform and utter contempt for technocrats and educated people in general. The emerging opposition was meanwhile inchoate and, not surprisingly, completely inexperienced in government. In the event, the brutal military backlash on Sept. 18, which installed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) of Snr-Gen Saw Maung, ensured nothing was really tackled beyond the immediate unrest. The military simply hunkered back down, again ignored critical opinion at home and abroad, and heaped blame on anyone but themselves.
Lack of coherent opposition
Within days of 8/8/88, the protests had at least achieved the removal of “Butcher” Sein Lwin, the man who replaced Gen Ne Win at the end of July as head of the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and who also became president. Gen Sein Lwin was followed by a more conciliatory interim figure, Dr. Maung Maung, a lawyer and academic who had also served as Gen Ne Win’s hagiographer.
Although many consider this to have been a cynical play for time by the Ne Win clique intended to allow troublesome poppies to grow tall, Dr. Maung Maung at least talked of democratic reforms and staging multi-party elections. But so had Gen Ne Win when he ostensibly stepped aside. Dr. Maung Maung lifted martial law, and there was a window of a month while the demonstrations carried on. A credible, unified opposition failed to emerge despite much talk of forming an interim government. There was also a call in early September for Dr. Maung Maung to step aside. Given Myanmar’s modern history and the Ne Win government’s intolerance of any organized structure, even the Buddhist Sangha, the failure of the opposition to come up with a viable alternative was to be expected.
Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was then a political neophyte who only appeared after the August uprising was under way. Moving from a standing start, she had her father’s great name but no personal experience or political machine to back her. Indeed, her National League for Democracy (NLD) was only formed after the SLORC’s coup. Brig-Gen Aung Gyi, whose critical letters to Gen Ne Win had stirred public discontent, was the NLD’s first chairman. However, he still saw some value in the military and soon split off with his own party.
Workers had sufficient awareness to mobilize a general strike but not to take matters beyond that. Students were the core agitators and organizers, with inspirational leaders such as Min Ko Naing, the “Conqueror of Kings,” but they could not find a suitable umbrella figure or movement to lock in behind and get to the next level.
All these players were certainly well aware of the dangers of a fragmented opposition, but still failed to somehow link up and accommodate each other in a bigger frame. In early September, it was U Nu, the prime minister ousted by Gen Ne Win in 1962, who sensed something had to be done and made a move. He reassembled the remnants of his old cabinet and declared himself to still be Myanmar’s legitimate premier. Although this made him popular with some workers and students, it alarmed the military and caught other opposition figures off guard, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Brig-Gen Aung Gyi and Gen Tin Oo—who was actually in U Nu’s party at the time.
A man who had always muddled his devout Buddhism with politics, U Nu was traumatized by the violence surrounding SLORC’s appearance. He later admitted to being impetuous, but his real error may have been doing the right thing the wrong way. U Nu continued to reconvene his cabinet in a garden room at his home, even though many of his ministers were long dead and attended in spirit only, literally.
In late September the junta, to its rare credit, endorsed the five-man election commission created by Dr. Maung Maung. Over 400 parties applied for registration in the following months. This staggering number was rightly reduced to about a dozen eligible for participation, of which only the NLD and the National Unity Party (NUP), which replaced the BSPP, really counted. With Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the NLD under the leadership of a cashiered colonel, U Kyi Maung, effectively countered the fragmentation problem and won a landslide election victory in May 1990, trouncing the NUP.
This free and fair election was subsequently ignored by the military. It was clear evidence of how hopelessly the generals continued to misjudge the mood of the people, but amply demonstrated the value of calm focus. By 1990, people had come to realize that the paramount issue was getting a competent government in place, and that all other matters must follow from there.
Democracy is a beacon, not a light bulb
One of the great myths propagated by the West and its media is that democracy produces better governments. In recent decades, one need look no further than Australia, Cambodia, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Italy, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States or Venezuela to see that perfectly free and fair elections can produce perfectly rotten governments—which is exactly why elections are so valuable. The great gift of democracy is not the guarantee of electing a better government; it is the power it gives the electorate to vote out a bad one in a peaceful, orderly manner. The Catch 22, however, is that a bad government will often not allow itself to be dismissed in a decent and transparent process. Indeed, SLORC’s disinclination to honor the 1990 election result is one of the best examples of this.
For many people, particularly in the Middle East at the moment, political change without pain is an elusive luxury. Even in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the notion of a loyal democratic opposition has yet to take seed in any of the 10 member countries—although Thailand and the Philippines might wish to dispute such an assertion. People rightly point out that Myanmar’s Parliament in Naypyitaw has badly flawed democratic credentials, particularly with its military block vote. But the inclusion of the NLD as an opposition force with a legal platform is a major first step along a difficult road. The NLD’s presence can be built upon and refined as it reconstructs itself. The tough process the NLD confronts of moving across from hectoring dissidence to productive political involvement is something outsiders should critique very cautiously and not condemn.
Gen Ne Win is no longer around to blame. It is not saying much at all, but at the end of the day this is the most democratic government Myanmar has had in over five decades. There is no mileage in lamenting that all this did not get going sooner. Maybe the greatest lesson of 8/8/88 is how easy it is to have all the moral high ground yet go nowhere.
Dominic Faulder is a British journalist based in Thailand who has covered Burma/Myanmar since 1981. He was a special correspondent with the Hong Kong newsweekly Asiaweek until the magazine’s closure in 2001.
This story first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.