Guest Column

Paying the Debt: 25 Years Later, Burma’s Struggle for Freedom Isn’t Over

By Min Zin 20 August 2013

Twenty-five years have now passed since Burma started its struggle for democracy. It began as the “8-8-88 Movement,” a nationwide popular uprising calling for the removal of military dictatorship and the restoration of democratic government. Tens of thousands of young Burmese took to the streets, shouting the slogan: “To achieve democracy is our cause, our cause.”

I was a 14-year-old high school student when I became involved in political activism in 1988 (after two of my siblings were arrested in a student protest at the Rangoon University campus). We distributed pamphlets and leaflets in our schools, staged hit-and-run protests in neighborhoods after school, established contacts with other high schools, and went together to Rangoon University to join their protests. I went on to become one of the founding leaders of the nationwide high school student union in Burma—where unions were illegal and just being a member could result in long-term imprisonment.

Student-led protests eventually snowballed into a nationwide popular uprising on Aug. 8, 1988 (8-8-88). You can think of it, without much exaggeration, as the “Burmese Spring.” The public, including many sympathetic members of the police force and army, took to the streets; civil society groups mushroomed in every region and social sector; and media freedom thrived as dozens of independent publications sprang up. (Even the journalists at some state-owned media practitioners joined the democracy protests and reported on the demonstrations.) The spring, however, did not last long. Winter came early and nipped our hopes in the bud. On Sept. 18 the military staged a coup, killing hundreds of unarmed protesters. According to independent estimates, at least 10,000 people were killed in August and September of 1988.

After 25 years, veterans of the “Four Eight” uprising came together to commemorate the movement and its fallen heroes. The biggest event in the country was held in Rangoon on the 8th of this month with exhibitions, speeches, and a theatrical performance. More than 10,000 people attended the anniversary event, where they listened to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi give a speech. Many of my former colleagues set up a stand in the exhibition hall to commemorate the activities of high school students in 1988 and to remember our fallen stars including Win Maw Oo, Thet Win Aung, and Maung Maung Kywe. Family members of those who died in the protests of the Four Eight movement or in imprisonment were in full attendance.

For me it was an incredible reunion. For the first time I had a chance to share stories with my former colleagues, and together we filled in many of the missing parts of our revolutionary puzzle. Some of us died, others went insane, and the rest struggled through a dark age of crackdowns, torture chambers, imprisonment and exile. Political conviction, a sense of solidarity, and the occasional favorable twist of fate helped us to cope with those days of political turmoil and suffering. Some of us were struck by seemingly avoidable misfortunes, while others managed to make improbable escapes from this worldly hell of autocratic repression.

Many of us tend to agree that the continuing political transition is worthy of appreciation. Some of the key leaders of the previous junta attended or sent goodwill messages to the event as a gesture of acknowledgment of the role the Four Eight movement played in Burma’s political opening. In fact, the massive release of political prisoners, the removal of media censorship, Aung San Suu Kyi’s entry into mainstream politics as a member of Parliament, the return of exiled activists, and the country’s re-engagement with the West all constitute unprecedented progress that we have witnessed in a considerably short period of time.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize the very substantial flaws inherent in the process so far. They include the flawed Constitution that the military adopted in 2008 to entrench its supremacy in politics by reserving 25 percent of seats in Parliament, by allowing the generals to appoint the three most important cabinet ministers, by authorizing the armed forces to take power in case of state emergency, and by limiting meaningful autonomy for ethnic minorities. Meanwhile we are still contending with the effects of simmering civil war and ethnic conflict, rising nationalism and communal violence, deepening poverty and a widening gap between rich and poor. The military has allowed unprecedented popular participation in Burmese politics, but they still control real political and economic power by means of the 2008 Constitution and highly skewed wealth distribution. Access to power has been dramatically broadened, but the exercise of power remains in the same hands: the military’s.

For this reason, all of us who attended the reunion felt acutely that our mission still has not been accomplished. There is one 8-8-88 memory that has never let go of me. When we were marching during the 1988 democracy movement, the people had nothing to eat, but they made rice bags for us so that we could eat and keep marching. When we collected the rice bags, we always promised them: “You will get democracy one day.” So far, we haven’t kept our promise.

I feel that our movement still owes the people for the food we ate. This is a very simple thing, but the sense of responsibility remains. The rice I ate 25 years ago still gives me the energy and power to keep going.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Foreign Policy’s Transitions, where this article first appeared on Aug. 19, 2013.