RANGOON — A thronged Myanmar Convention Center saw Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi praise the leaders of the 1988 student uprising against military rule, at the closing of an event on Thursday marking the 25th anniversary of the demonstrations.
“We have to be grateful to the people for their involvement in the uprising,” she told the packed auditorium in the north of Burma’s commercial capital, Rangoon. “We shouldn’t forget about it. We thank anyone involved, especially those who sacrificed their lives for our cause.”
Suu Kyi, now a parliamentarian with ambitions to be Burma’s next president, saw her political career launched in 1988 with a public speech in Rangoon two weeks after the Aug. 8 demonstrations against the Ne Win dictatorship, which had been ruling for a quarter-century.
Her speech this year on Thursday was the culmination of three days of debate and ceremony organized in part by the 88 Generation leaders—prominent former political prisoners who are now in their 40s, including Min Ko Naing, Mya Aye, Ko Ko Gyi, Pyone Cho and Min Zeya.
“Our cause will have success someday, given the number of people gathering here today,” Min Ko Naing told the crowd, an estimated 4,000 to 5000 people wedged into the convention center and an area outside, where some watched the proceedings on a video screen.
Among the delegates were Htay Oo from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the party set up by the same Burmese military that brutally crushed the 1988 student-led uprising, killing an estimated 3,000 people.
Others present included Shan leader Khun Htun Oo and US Ambassador Derek Mitchell.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy about the commemoration and its relevance to Burma today, Mitchell recalled a famous aphorism by philosopher Carlos Santayana. “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, so it is important to honor the sacrifice of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we hope are beginning here,” he said.
After crushing the 1988 uprising, Burma’s military ruled the country until early 2011, before transferring power to a civilian government—albeit one under President Thein Sein, a former general, and with a Constitution that reserves 25 percent of seats for the powerful military.
After those 1988 student protests, the Burmese military refused to acknowledge a landslide win for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in a 1990 election. The ruling generals kept her and other activists from the 88 Generation in jail for many of the subsequent years, and in 2007 they ordered the military to crush another uprising, this time led by Buddhist monks.
The post-2011 government has undertaken political and economic reforms, including the release of most 88 Generation leaders from jail early last year. The 88 Generation leaders, who have worked with the government on various peace processes between the military and ethnic militias, have formed a prominent group in Burmese civil society, prompting speculation that they might establish a political party ahead of the 2015 national elections.
Tin Oo, a senior member of the NLD and a former head of the Burma Army, told The Irrawaddy that the 88 Generation would make suitable political allies for the NLD, should the activists decide to enter formal politics.
“I don’t know whether they will go into politics or not,” Tin Oo said. “If they do, they will not join the NLD—they will have their own party, I think. But in Parliament we will be the same, on the one principle we will be united.”
Both the NLD and the 88 Generation are calling for a revision to Burma’s 2008 Constitution, which vests significant powers with the military and bars Suu Kyi from becoming president.
Refraining recent criticisms of the slowing pace of Burma’s reforms at the 1988 commemoration event on Thursday, Suu Kyi said, “There’s no rule of law in this country so far,” and reiterated her view that the Constitution must be amended.
Human rights groups have said that Burma’s reforms have stalled recently, as farmers and others protesting land-grabs are arrested and jailed. A range of old, repressive laws also remain in place, as Burma’s legislature works through a litany of new and proposed laws.
Nonetheless, Mitchell, the US ambassador, sees the Silver Jubilee commemorations as indicative of change in Burma, remarking that such an event would have been impossible prior to 2011.
“It’s the beginning of a process, but the fact that you can have such an event here, with such a large crowd and wide participation, is remarkable,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Former BBC correspondent Christopher Gunness, who reported on the 1988 demonstrations in Burma, echoed Mitchell’s comments, saying, “It is extremely significant that government ministers and military people came to an event like this, because in all societies that are transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, the first step along the way is truth, is discovering the truth, is telling the truth and acknowledging the truth.”