RANGOON — In a rare public statement, President Thein Sein has acknowledged the important role in Burma’s history of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, which was brutally crushed by the military, leaving thousands of people dead.
In a monthly radio address on Sunday, Thein Sein—who was a high-ranking general and prime minister under the former military regime—welcomed the new degree of political openness in Burma that allowed activists last month to freely commemorate the 25th anniversary of the uprising.
“The 88 people’s movement Silver Jubilee held early last month commemorates an important movement in our political history,” he said. “The fact that we can celebrate this event together shows us that we are moving toward a new political culture where those who ‘agree to disagree’ can still work together.
“In order to become a modern society, I believe that we need to solve our disagreements through peaceful and nonviolent discussions and negotiations geared toward finding a common ground.”
The radio address came a day after Thein Sein met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon who won a seat in Parliament last year. In the address, he also called for better cooperation between the legislative and executive branches to work toward national reconciliation as the country transitions from nearly 50 years of dictatorship.
Burma’s political activists last month organized a Silver Jubilee commemoration of the historic popular protests in 1988, in which hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets demanding an end to military dictatorship. Known as the “88 Uprising,” the movement was crushed by the military’s heavy hand, leaving at least 3,000 people dead.
As part of the Silver Jubille, activists and former student leaders held a three-day conference in Rangoon to commemorate the uprising through debate and ceremony, while marches and memorials were held in Mandalay and other parts of the country. Government officials, including Minister Aung Min from the President’s Office, attended the events in Rangoon. Other delegates included Htay Oo from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the party set up by the same Burmese military that crushed the uprising.
The commemoration was an indication of new political openness in Burma, where a nominally civilian government came to power in 2011. However, rights groups say the military generals responsible for the crackdown have yet to be held accountable.
“The mass killings 25 years ago in Burma are an unaddressed open wound that challenges the government’s rhetoric of reform,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last month. “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.”
Activists have also called on Thein Sein to divulge his own role in the 1988 crackdown.
Thein Sein has never publicly spoken about his role in suppressing the uprising, says Burma Campaign UK. But citing a US embassy diplomatic cable from 2004, the UK-based activist group said the Burmese president served in 1988 as commander of Light Infantry Division-55, an elite organization loyal to the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party.
“In that capacity, he distinguished himself … in the crackdown against the 1988 uprising,” the US diplomatic cable said, as quoted by Burma Campaign UK in statement released last month.
Thein Sein also praised actions of the military in 1988 during his first speech to Parliament after becoming president. “In 1988, the Tatmadaw [military] government saved the country from deteriorating conditions in various sectors and reconstructed the country,” he told lawmakers, as quoted by Burma Campaign UK.
Pyong Cho, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, says he has long waited for Thein Sein to comment on the uprising and brutal military crackdown.
“I believe his speech will support national reconciliation,” the former student leader told The Irrawaddy on Monday. “He should be brave enough to speak out during his time in power.”
The father of a 16-year-old girl who was gunned down by the military during the 1988 protests is also among those calling for justice.
“No-one from the government or Parliament has invited us to speak with us, even though there has been political change,” said Win Kyu, the father of Win Maw Oo, the subject of an infamous photograph that appeared in the Oct. 3, 1988, issue of Newsweek magazine’s Asian edition documenting a blood-soaked 16-year-old girl being carried by two doctors.
He and his wife met last month with UN human rights envoy Tomás Ojea Quintana in Rangoon. During the one-hour meeting, the UN envoy asked the parents what happened to their daughter the day she was killed on Sept. 19, 1988; what they wanted to ask the government; and whether they had any plan to seek justice for their daughter’s death.
“Before, I wanted action to be taken to punish them,” he told The Irrawaddy. “But now I’m getting old, I feel I can forgive them if they apologize to us.”
With additional reporting by Samantha Michaels.