Sacrifices of September 1988 Not Forgotten as Myanmar’s Long March to Democracy Continues

By The Irrawaddy 18 September 2020

Thirty-two years ago today, the streets of Yangon were awash in blood as soldiers indiscriminately opened fire on unarmed protesters and demonstrators, and state-owned radio announced the installation of a new regime in Myanmar, then known as Burma. The country’s popular democratic uprising was at an end.

Former dictator General Ne Win, who had staged a coup in March 1962, instructed the military to stage another in September 1988.

On Sept. 17, then Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services General Saw Maung and then Chief of Military Intelligence Colonel Khin Nyunt visited the residence of U Ne Win and received the order to stage a coup.

After the military takeover the next day, Myanmar again descended into hell. Coup maker Gen. Saw Maung became head of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the organ created to assume power.

We then saw armed movements on the border, to which many young activists and students fled. The Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) was formed as an umbrella group comprising several armed organizations, remnants of the 1988 activist movement, and a newly formed student army, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF).

On Nov. 19, 1988, the DAB released a statement calling on neighboring countries, the UN and the international community not to recognize the “Saw Maung military regime”, to withhold military and economic aid to Burma and to support the DAB’s efforts to bring about “the restoration of peace, democracy and national reconciliation in Burma.”

Myanmar army troops charge at unarmed demonstrators in Yangon in September 1988. / Science Source

The alliance comprised 10 ethnic members of the National Democratic Front (NDF), along with Myanmar expatriates who came back from the US and other Western countries, and non-NDF members.

The key figures were Karen leader Bo Mya (Karen National Union), Kachin leader Brang Seng (Kachin Independence Organization), Nai Shwe Kyin (New Mon State Party), and U Thwin and U Tin Maung Win of the Committee for Restoration of Democracy in Burma (CRDB).

Today, the DAB no longer exists and the abovementioned key leaders of the group have passed away.

Gen. Saw Maung kept his promise to hold a free and fair election in 1990. A further promise that the Myanmar army would return to the barracks and hand over power to the winner of the election was not kept, however, and in 1992 the general was allowed to resign from his post after reportedly suffering a mental breakdown. He died in 1997.

Gen. Ne Win, once known as “Burma’s Strongman”, lived on until December 2002.

Today, all of the top ruling generals of the SLORC have either retired or passed away. Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who succeeded Gen. Saw Maung, and his deputies General Maung Aye and General Khin Nyunt have all retired.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), now the ruling party in Myanmar, won a landslide victory in 1990 but the outcome was never honored. Instead, many of its members were thrown into prisons and torture chambers and served long sentences.

Myanmar became a pariah state, roundly condemned by the international community and saddled with Western sanctions. The regime became locked in an adversarial relationship with Western governments (a situation that has in some ways repeated itself due to the crisis in Rakhine) and international organizations over its suppression of democracy and human rights.

During this period, the military leaders remained proudly aloof, alienated and inward-looking, lacking any understanding of international norms and values. The shunned the international community, and Myanmar went largely untouched by foreign influence, including in the areas of human rights and economic development.

Today, Myanmar is going through a political transition that began when the country started opening up in 2011 and 2012. At that time, the West lifted sanctions and embraced Myanmar. The country held a free and fair election in 2015, which brought the current NLD government to power in 2016. Now, Myanmar is preparing to hold another general election, slated for November.

The military retains its allotted 25 percent of seats in Parliament and continues to play a role in politics. The top generals maintain their claim they are building a “standard army”, but Myanmar still lacks the professional armed forces it needs.

One of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, Myanmar has long been plagued by armed conflict, as its ethnic minority groups fight for autonomy. In recent years, many new and powerful players backed by foreign powers have emerged. While the Karen resistance movement in the south has declined since its heyday, new warlords and ethnic leaders have emerged in the north on the Chinese border.

Then we have the Border Guard Force and hundreds of militias that have decided to forge alliances with the military in order to engage in economic activities both legal and illegal, including all kinds of illicit trade.

In addition, the country is faced with a well-organized terrorist movement, backed by a well-funded international campaign in support of the Rohingya. This movement has staged an armed rebellion along the western border with Bangladesh.

The Rohingya crisis has attracted the attention of the international community, with the military standing accused of committing ethnic cleansing and even genocide.

With the support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Gambia sued Myanmar over the Rohingya issue at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in late 2019. In the international arena, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, once an icon of peace, is herself now a pariah. Despite this fall from grace, however, she remains deeply popular inside Myanmar.

Shifting geopolitical realities, however, mean that once again, the West faces a dilemma when it comes to Myanmar; continued condemnation and the imposition of sanctions or any other punitive measures will only further isolate the country from the West and run the risk of pushing it deeper into China’s orbit.

Not only China, but also other Asian neighbors and powers like India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, along with a handful of pragmatic Western governments have—whether it’s because they are taking a long-term view, understand the nuances of Myanmar’s political situation or are simply playing it safe by adopting a “realpolitik” approach—continue to engage Myanmar, winning its trust and friendship. In return, they maintain a degree of influence in Myanmar’s fragile political process.

Today, Myanmar is at a crossroads—there will be no turning back to 1988. It has been a long struggle to get to this stage, and the road ahead will continue to be bumpy. The heroes who marched and sacrificed their lives in the streets of Yangon and elsewhere in Myanmar deserve nothing less than our total respect and eternal gratitude.

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