The 30-year anniversary of the 1988 uprising is fast approaching, commemorating when millions of people marched across the country in a powerful call, demanding the end of decades of oppressive military rule.
Following months of unrest, protests erupted throughout Myanmar in August 1988. The response from the military dictators was barbaric. In the weeks that followed, 3,000 were estimated to have been killed and many more injured. Thousands were arrested, incarcerated and tortured in jail, all for simply exercising their democratic rights.
As we approach the 30-year anniversary, it is important to stop and reflect on how far we have come as a nation and on what has changed since a quarrel in a tea shop started one of the biggest political demonstrations in Myanmar’s history. While many people contemplate the state of the nation 30 years on, though, what about the state of the protesters?
Many of the ’88 generation have scars as a result of their imprisonment. Many are underemployed, and some are unable to work altogether. They need reparation and recognition.
A reparation law should be implemented to this end. This would include financial reparations to make up for years of unemployment and employment restrictions. Provisions for physical therapy, treatment and livelihood support such as pensions should be included. Such a law should also remove any restrictions or limitations on hiring former political prisoners or denying them full access to all avenues of society. Today, lawyers and doctors who lost their licenses upon arrest have yet to get them back even though they were released years ago.
In 2013, in Georgia, an amnesty bill not only freed 190 political prisoners but also freed them from any legal or criminal responsibility. It ensured not only their freedom, but also their re-integration into society, allowing them to play roles in moving the country forward. Such a holistic approach should be studied and considered for Myanmar. In Northern Ireland, former political prisoners played vital roles in the peace process and in national reconciliation. Former political prisoners should be utilized for the benefit of this country too. This should also include the involvement of those who have fled and are yet to return.
The return of exiles, activists and former political prisoners is an important and necessary step for national reconciliation. In South Africa, Chile and East Timor, at the end of civil war or after a conflict or uprising, exiles returned and proved they can play vital roles in shaping that country’s future.
In Myanmar, there is no pathway for exiles to return. I myself am also still waiting for the government to return my citizenship. I am not alone. Many more are waiting for it to be returned while others are waiting to be removed from the government blacklist. The government needs to facilitate this. It needs to invite and welcome exiles and listen to them.
They also need recognition of their sacrifice, of their many years spent behind bars for fighting for change. Today there are 122 former political prisoners in Parliament. They know all too well the struggle that political prisoners have endured. It should not go unnoticed. But there is little action being taken. This recognition of their struggle would be a vital part of national reconciliation.
There is now a democracy monument in Bago Region recognizing the struggle of democratic activists, built by the regional government and civil society, which will be officially opened on Aug. 8. This is appreciated and a start, but more effort toward recognition needs to be made by the central government.
Now, 30 years on from the uprising, we are living in a hybrid regime, where power is shared between the democratic government and the military. We can see some positive signs, but the civil war goes on, torture remains widespread and gross human rights violations still exist. We have come a long way, but we have much further to go and the government has a lot more to do.
Bo Kyi helped found the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and currently serves as a secretary.