RANGOON — Standing in front of the building where thousands were forced to run for their lives amid a hail of bullets 25 years ago, pro-democracy activists gathered again on Thursday to remember their fallen comrades.
Under overcast skies on Thursday morning, nearly 100 people bearing wreaths descended upon an open space opposite Rangoon’s City Hall to mark the silver jubilee of a nationwide pro-democracy movement that would ultimately cost more than 3,000 demonstrators their lives.
“We are here today to honor our comrades who sacrificed their lives on this day, August 8, in 1988,” said San Tint Kyaw, an organizer of the memorial event.
Twenty-five years ago, normal life for most Burmese ground to a halt when people from all walks of life took to the streets in a protest known as the ’88 Uprising, with participants demanding an end to the 26-year, single-party rule of dictator Ne Win. But a military crackdown on the thousands of protesters at Rangoon City Hall would turn the day’s demonstrations into a night of historic infamy.
“There was sea of people here on that day,” recounted another organizer who survived the crackdown. “When the Army opened fire at night, there was total chaos as people ran for their lives.”
At 8am on Thursday, a crowd that included children in their school uniforms marched around Maha Bandoola Park in front of City Hall. Participants observed one minute’s silence and laid four wreaths, each depicting the number 8, at the corner of the park in honor of those killed during the crackdown.
“Our fallen heroes, we are proud of your sacrifice for our democratic cause,” an organizer read out a message to their fallen comrades at the memorial event. “We vow here today that we will keep on fighting for the peace, democracy and human rights that we all long for.”
The nearly 30-minute memorial event concluded with prayers from leaders of the country’s four major religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
Later on Thursday, an illegal demonstration saw hundreds of protestors march through the streets of Rangoon, under the stern gaze of law enforcement officials.
Myint Kyi, a police officer in Lanmadaw Township, confronted demonstration leader and rights activist Ma Phyu, asking whether participants had permission to hold the march. In response, Ma Phyu said the marchers’ peaceful protest was to honor comrades killed during the 1988 uprising.
“Even U Aung Min [the government’s chief peace negotiator] has recognized the uprising in 1988,” Ma Phyu said. “It is the anniversary of the 1988 uprising and we did not feel the need to gain permission as it is just to commemorate by walking in the street.”
She said the protests in 1988 began on the streets and Thursday’s demonstration by her group, made up of former political prisoners and other rights activists, was homage to those origins.
Authorities have in the past charged rights activists who failed to receive permission for protest marches. The latest high-profile case was in March, involving a protest against fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels in Kachin State. Some peaceful activists were charged for holding the unpermitted demonstration.
Ma Phyu said she did fear any repercussions that might arise from Thursday’s march.
The rights activists carried banners as they marched, drawing curious onlookers out of shops and onto balconies to observe the demonstration. Some bystanders offered applause in support of the protesters.
The activists passed through the townships of Dagon, Lanmadaw, Ladar, Pabaetan and Kyaukthadar, with more and more people joining the march until the crowd reached Sule Pagoda downtown, where activists laid flowers for 1988’s victims outside the grounds of Maha Bandoola Park.
Some wore black T-shirts to reflect the somber nature of the commemoration, while others spoke of hopes that one day the military generals responsible for more than 3,000 deaths in 1988 might be brought to justice.
“For me, it depends on if I have the power,” said Win Cho, another leader of Thursday’s march. “If I have it, I want to bring this case to justice when the country has a fair justice system.”
One woman clad in a black T-shirt said in front of City Hall that the military generals should publicly apologize for the brutality unleashed 25 years ago.
“They still keep quiet about what they have done and they have not made any apology to the people. And they are still holding power in government. We do not want to see them [in power],” the woman said.