Myanmar’s ’88 Uprising Veterans Call for Military’s Full Withdrawal from Politics

By San Yamin Aung 8 August 2019

YANGON—Prominent former student activists who led the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that ousted Myanmar’s then socialist regime called publicly on Thursday for the full removal of the military from the political arena, at an event marking the 31st anniversary of the nation’s largest popular revolt.

Thousands of people gathered in Maha Bandula Park in downtown Yangon on Thursday morning to commemorate the anniversary of the movement—popularly known as the “8888 Uprising”—which paved the way for changes that brought Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to power 28 years later. But 31 years on, the country’s powerful military retains its leadership role in politics under the undemocratic 2008 Constitution and continues to wield considerable power. The charter reserves 25 percent of all parliamentary seats and control of three important ministries—Defense, Border Affairs and Home Affairs—to military appointees.

“The military needs to be removed entirely from politics to allow democracy to flourish and establish a democratic federal Union in the country, which are the ultimate goals of the 8888 Uprising,” said U Mya Aye, one of the student leaders, reading from a statement issued by the anniversary event’s organizing committee.

“We all believe that the 88 Generation, other political generations, ethnic groups and civil society, as well as the incumbent government, need to continue working together harmoniously to accomplish the goals of the 8888 Uprising.”

Activists lay flowers for the victims of the crackdown on the 1988 Uprising outside the grounds of Maha Bandula Park during the commemoration on Thursday. / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

Thirty-one years ago, people from all walks of life joined in the nationwide student-led protests, which challenged the dictator Ne Win’s one-party rule and demanded full-fledged democracy. Despite ending in a bloody military coup, the uprising was a turning point in Myanmar’s modern history. Political analysts at home and abroad agree that it raised the public’s political awareness and paved the way for the current government.

Prominent human rights activist U Aung Myo Min, 53, who participated in the uprising as a student protester, said Myanmar has seen some political progress over the past three decades, but the country has a long way to go before full-fledged democracy is achieved.

“We can say that holding this celebration of the anniversary in a place that was covered with blood [in 1988] is a symbolic form of progress. But that was not what we demanded 31 years ago. What we called for was genuine democracy and human rights,” he said.

He said human rights continue to be violated, repressive laws are still used to arrest political dissidents, and the military still exerts control over politics despite the election of a civilian government. Worst of all, attacks based on race and religion remain a problem in the country, reminding all of the need to work harder, he added.

Sixteen-year-old student Ma Nay Chi Linn attended the commemoration with her friends.

“This is the third time I have attended an anniversary of the 8888 Uprising. There are other students who don’t know about this day, on which the public could no longer bear authoritarian rule and [decided to] fight. It is a part of our history that should not be forgotten and I think this kind of celebration is needed.”

English teacher Ma Phyu Phyu, 20, said she felt grateful to those who sacrificed their lives during the uprising.

“Because of them, we don’t need to experience such bloody fighting. I feel that we need to work hard as a way to show our appreciation for them,” she said.

Thousands gather at Maha Bandula Park in Yangon to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the 8888 Uprising. / The Irrawaddy

The anniversary’s organizing committee declared Aug. 8 as “8888 Democracy Uprising Day” at the event.

In its statement, it added that justice had not yet been done for those who sacrificed and died during the struggle.

“Since this bitter, tragic and historic event occurred, we have remembered it from behind bars, in jungles and on borders every year. But today, we are recalling it in front of City Hall… Indeed, this should be the time in which the new generation builds the nation of its dreams,” prominent former student leader and political prisoner U Min Ko Naing told the audience.

He said Myanmar gave birth to a democracy movement against one-party authoritarian rule earlier than many countries, but now lags behind those countries that have since undergone smooth and peaceful democratic transition in a shorter time with fewer losses and sacrifices. Some countries are only able to start transitions to democracy after sacrificing thousands of lives and enduring a long period of suffering, he added.

“The difference is that in those countries that have been able to transform successfully and peacefully in a short time, their armed groups didn’t guard the dictatorship, didn’t crack down on the public, but stood together with the public in the movement,” he said, stressing the importance of a long-term vision and goodwill on the part of the armed forces to the success of those countries’ transitions.

Thousands gather at Maha Bandula Park in Yangon to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the 8888 Uprising. / The Irrawaddy

“We firmly believe that the public will welcome those organizations which stand together with them and collaborate with them for the sake of fairness, but they will judge negatively those organizations that stand against them and obstruct or destroy popular movements,” U Min Ko Naing said.

The event, which was attended by Yangon regional government officials, members of the 88 Generation and other political activists, Buddhist monks and many youth, comes amid a parliamentary battle over amending the Constitution, which pits the ruling NLD and ethnic parties on one side against military lawmakers and the Tatmadaw’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party on the other.

The NLD and ethnic parties have submitted to Parliament nearly 4,000 proposed amendments to the Constitution. The proposed changes put forward include gradually reducing the role of the military and its commander-in-chief in politics. The military has rejected their attempts as “unconstitutional”. Some parties have proposed an immediate, full removal of the military from politics—a goal echoed by the 88 Generation student leaders on Thursday.

“Everyone knows that full-fledged democracy does not yet exist, and understands that there are still many hurdles [to overcome]. Our determination to fight against unfairness and oppression won’t change or fade, whatever the threats or hurdles,” U Min Ko Naing said in his speech.