RANGOON — Nearly 2,000 people came together on Tuesday to commemorate the storied 1988 popular uprising that nearly toppled Burma’s military dictatorship and ultimately cost thousands their lives.
Attended by political activists in Burma as well as some living in exile abroad, the three-day “Silver Jubilee for Four Eights Democracy Movement” kicked off on Tuesday in grand fashion, marking the first time in 25 years—since the modern pro-democracy movement was born—that the cause has been openly feted on such a scale in the country.
Widely known as the 88 Uprising, the nationwide pro-democracy movement that traces its origins back to Aug. 8, 1988, drew hundreds of thousands of Burmese from all walks of life to join a protest in the former capital Rangoon. The movement sought an end to dictator Ne Win’s oppressive 26-year single-party rule, but the government would ultimately crush the protests with a heavy hand, killing at least 3,000 peaceful demonstrators.
During his opening speech for Tuesday’s ceremony at the Myanmar Convention Center in Rangoon, Min Ko Naing, the most prominent then-student leader of the historic movement, said the event was dedicated to the uprising’s unsung fallen heroes. The commemoration was also to serve as a bridge, he said, spanning three eras for the country—Burma 25 years ago, Burma today and Burma in future.
“I believe the ceremony may help young people today to learn how their previous generation sacrificed, so that they will value the future of their country.”
In his keynote address, the former student leader urged people not to stray from the spirit of ’88, which he said at its core was against oppression and a privileged ruling elite. He said the three days’ worth of events would include discussion sessions focused on peace and national reconciliation, which he urged people to join as a collective brainstorming for the future of the country.
Pyone Cho, a leader from the 88 Generation Students group and member of the 88 Silver Jubilee Convention Committee, said the committee had also invited members of Parliament as well as senior government officials.
“Whether they attend or not is up to them,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Tuesday’s ceremony began with the public viewing of a documentary on Burma’s pro-democracy movement, from 1988 to the monk-led Saffron Revolution of 2007.
Scenes of people marching in the streets and the military’s violent response to the peaceful demonstrators were supported musically by a Burmese-language remake of “Dust in the Wind,” a 1977 hit from the US rock band Kansas. The archival footage was lent a tragic poignancy as lyrics like “Oh… fallen heroes of the democracy movement…. History written with our blood… corpses lying on the roads… this is the country where martyrs live” thundered through the hall.
“I got excited when I heard that song. I felt like crying,” said Win Zaw, an attendee, as he blinked back tears. A medical student at the time, Win Zaw was involved in the ’88 protests and witnessed the bloody crackdowns.
On the grounds in front of the ceremony venue, people packed into a booth showcasing historical memorabilia related to the uprising that ranged from photographs and cartoons to newspapers and statements from student organizations of the time.
“We tried our best to reveal what really happened in our country 25 years ago,” said Thaw Zin Tun of the of 88 Silver Jubilee Convention Committee’s exhibition sub-committee.
In one corner of the exhibition, sketches and bios of political activists who died during their detention covered a wall.
“They all died from 1988 to 2009,” Thaw Zin Tun said.
Asked about the message of the exhibition, Thaw Zin Tun said hoped visitors would take lessons from the history on display.
“We just simply want to show them there should be no absolute power holder or oppressed people in future.”