Twenty-five years on, are we now on the road to democracy that we hoped to attain through peaceful demonstrations on the streets in 1988? The answer, I think, is still not clear. It depends on all of us, the Burmese people.
Of course, we have reached a political phase today that never seemed possible until a couple years ago, when the former military regime handed power to a quasi-civilian government. The country’s nationwide uprising, known as the “Four Eights” democracy movement, is being commemorated this week, with the Silver Jubilee on Thursday.
For three days, starting on Tuesday, activists from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society have held a commemorative event, with leading members of ethnic armed groups, former political prisoners, social workers, scholars and many more people coming together to openly discuss once-taboo issues inside the country for the first time. We cannot deny that this marks an unprecedented step in the reform process.
“For this anniversary of the 88 movement, it is quite significant that we can all reunite here again,” said Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent leader of the 88 Uprising and a leading member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.
It’s true. Before the reforms, I would have never been able to participate in an outspoken and thought-provoking discussion with Ko Ko Gyi, one of my inmates back in the 1990s at the notorious Insein Prison, and another close activist friend, Min Zin, as we did this week for an episode of the “Dateline Irrawaddy” program at my office in downtown Rangoon.
Ko Ko Gyi and I were both arrested in December 1991 after taking part in a student demonstration in Rangoon. I spent eight years in prison before my release, and he was freed 10 years after that. Min Zin and I, as high school students, organized political activities together in 1989. The last time we met in Rangoon was that year on July 19, the Martyrs’ Day holiday, when the military forcibly dispersed our peaceful demonstration.
“The 88 Uprising was a wide, colorful picture,” Ko Ko Gyi said, visualizing the pro-democracy movement 25 years ago. Those who took part have since entered a diverse range of fields, as politicians, journalists, businesspeople, ethnic rebel leaders and even soldiers.
“I’m in the political field and you’re in the media sector, while Min Zin is pursuing a PhD,” Ko Ko Gyi said during our roundtable discussion. Min Zin is a PhD student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, where I also studied journalism years ago.
We certainly feel fortunate to join this jubilee together with our former inmates and colleagues. But we also realize that we cannot achieve justice for many other friends who perished over the past two and a half decades in prison or at war in the jungle, fighting for their political beliefs.
Justice must be an important part of this reform process, but it will depend on the willingness of former military generals and our own efforts.
Ko Ko Gyi said that to truly promote reform, those who took part in the 1988 movement should collaborate and contribute to the rebuilding of the nation from each of their respective fields.
“We have to admit that the country is going through the motions of reform. But we need to try harder to achieve the essence of reform,” he said. “The 2008 Constitution and the 2010 elections were one sided, controlled by the former military regime. Certainly the current political situation is not what we expected. On those grounds, we are trying to make this process inclusive.”
Min Zin who is a contributor to The Irrawaddy and other international publications, including the Foreign Policy blog, thinks the playing field in Burma has never been fair.
“Because wealth, power, institutions and so on in the nation have always been monopolized by the rulers and their close associates, the underdogs have faced a disadvantage,” he said.
“During the 88 demonstration, we 88 generation students received lunch boxes from people who donated with the expectation of achieving democracy. I don’t think we have paid back the debt of those lunch boxes.
“Twenty-five years later, I think our generation should pay back this debt and the next generation should reap the rewards. … As long as the military is involved in politics, there will be students and monks who get involved in politics. I think this should end, and we should try to achieve reconciliation in a genuine way.”
Min Zin urged people from all institutions, including the military, to practice their respective professions. In Burma, the military has been involved in politics since 1962, when Gen Ne Win took power, and its key role in politics has been guaranteed by the current 2008 Constitution. This is a major problem—and the reason why Burma has derailed. On the other hand, nobody can deny that the military is the main institution in this reform process.
To bring about real democracy, Burma needs strong leadership. Our country has lacked capable leaders at critical junctures in the past, including when we gained independence from the British in 1948, after the national hero Gen Aung San was assassinated. Burma was missing a strong leader then, and we are in the same situation now. Ko Ko Gyi said, “To attain national reconciliation, we need capable men and women who can narrow the gap between the military and civil society and also reduce ethnic conflicts.”
Twenty-five years have passed. Nothing concrete has been achieved. We find ourselves in a reform process, but one important question still lingers: Who will benefit? Burma is changing, but is it changing for all of us, Burma’s people, or just for a select handful of the elite?