RANGOON — Marking a day shy of 25 years since Burmese students took to the streets in defiance of army rule, President’s Office Minister Aung Min made a brief visit on Wednesday to the Rangoon conference hall where the former demonstrators now known as the 88 Generation are holding a three-day event to commemorate the 1988 protests.
Aung Min, the Burma government’s chief negotiator in the 17 peace processes ongoing with many of the country’s ethnic minority militias, sat briefly with 88 Generation leader and longtime political prisoner Pyone Cho, before giving a short address to the crowd at the Myanmar Convention Center, a cavernous hall temporarily bedecked in 1988 memorabilia, in the north of Rangoon.
“Let us take lessons from what has been done wrong from history, and let us all work together to build a new generation,” the minister told the gathering, in perhaps a tacit admission by Burma’s government that it did not react appropriately to the 1988 demonstrations.
The heady days of the 1988 protests were marked, in the end, by tragedy: A brutal military crackdown killed more than 3,000 civilians and saw thousands of demonstrators jailed. The 25th anniversary of the crackdown has prompted human rights groups to call for accountability for crimes committed at the time.
But now, more than two years into a reform process that many see as stalling of late—with a spate of recent arrests and jailings of land rights protestors—the government’s attitude toward those it once shot at and jailed is much-changed. After his remarks, Aung Min donated 1 million kyat (US$1,025) to the 88 Generation, and then spent a short time touring the various photo displays and artwork set up around the conference hall, guided by Mya Aye, another student protest leader from 1988 who spent much of the intervening two decades in jail. Minister for Cooperatives Ohn Myint, another prominent government peace negotiator, gave 500,000 kyat to the group.
Earlier this week, Aung Min headed a government delegation that met with the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), a rebel group that dates its existence to 1988 and whose former student cadres have most recently been fighting in Burma’s northern Kachin State alongside the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). A KIA ceasefire with the government collapsed in June 2011.
“We will work together in Myanmar’s political and democratic reforms. The government and the ABSDF are no longer enemies. We have become close friends. The agreement we have reached now is a milestone in history,” Aung Min told journalists after the Monday meeting in Rangoon.
Former ABSDF leader Moe Thee Zun, a former political prisoner and exile in the United States, recently returned to Burma to attend the silver jubilee commemorations. He says the memories— and the ongoing travails in Burma’s reform process—are a source of ambivalence. “I have very mixed feelings as I miss those who lost their lives in those days and since,” he told The Irrawaddy.
On his second visit to Burma since the March 2011 formation of a quasi-civilian government and the start of the post-military reforms, Moe Thee Zun said he hopes to return to Burma permanently. Brushing off some of the attacks on Facebook and other social networks that he has received for speaking out about recent violence and discrimination against Burma’s Muslims, he shrugged, saying, “I don’t care about that, it is part of a democracy.”
At the time of the 1988 protests, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s independence hero Gen Aung San, was in Burma to visit her mother, and after the initial student protests, she addressed a huge crowd around the Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon’s most sacred shrine, on Aug. 25 of that year, marking the start of her political career.
Suu Kyi spent a decade and a half of the intervening years under house arrest, before winning a seat in Burma’s Parliament in April 2012. Commenting on the work of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Parliament, Moe Thee Zun told The Irrawaddy that he believes the party led by Suu Kyi could do more to push reforms in Burma. “I want to see more action, more democratic principle within her party as well,” he said.
And, while many of the 88 Generation have remained non-committal about whether they will form a political party or join other parties in advance of Burma’s 2015 national elections, Moe Thee Zun says he wants to run for office. “I have a dream that I can join the election and can be a politician to serve a free Burma,” he told The Irrawaddy. “If the government and the law allows me, that is.”