Exactly 26 years ago, on 8th August 1988 Burmese citizens woke up on a wet Monday morning with no idea what tragedy and destruction would lay ahead of them.
During my time in Myanmar as it is now called, I heard all about the 8888 uprising (08/08/1988) and how in the week leading up to the protest day every single Burmese citizen seemed to be filled with hope and that everyone was so sure the pro-democracy movement was going to succeed. At the time, the uprising movement seemed to have an unstoppable momentum that would only come crashing down in the weeks that followed.
Beginning with the withdrawal of the currency notes, 100, 75, 35 and 25 kyats, leaving only 45 and 90 kyat notes by Ne Win in 1987, months of student riots and protests followed that would lead to the 8888 uprising on the 8th August 1988. Following the resignation of Ne Win and the introduction of the largely disliked Sein Lwin known as the “Butcher of Rangoon” hundreds of thousands of Burmese from all walks of life took their own fates into their hands and joined one of the biggest protests in Burmese history.
It was a country crying out for democracy, but sadly their protests came to a brutal end with an army crackdown that killed more than 3,000 innocent lives. Twenty-six years later the 8th August still stands as the most important milestone in Burma’s history, a day that marks the beginning of a new Burma, a day that marked the emergence of a full-fledged democracy movement and a government that would spend the next decade suppressing democracy leaders including that of Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Sui Kyi. It was also a day of hope, bullets, blood and tears.
Our dear friends were kind enough to spend time explaining the history through their eyes. It shocked me how open they were and how honest they were about how they felt about the situation. In previous years it was almost impossible to discuss anything related to the uprising. Just muttering the word “88” would land you behind bars.
While driving around the city they began to explain that the Burmese people protested peacefully in the week leading up to 8th August. It was on this day that protests peaked and as more people joined the ever growing protests, army enforcements were brought in with an order “shoot to kill”. Even with a gun to their face protesters remained on the streets in the days that followed.
“Across Burma, people poured out in thousands to join the protests – not just students but also teachers, monks, children, professionals, and trade unionists of every shade. It was on this day, too, that the junta made its first determined attempt at repression. Soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators and hundreds of unarmed marchers were killed. The killings continued for a week, but still the demonstrators continued to flood the streets.” – Amitav Ghosy (2001)
On August 10th soldiers stormed Rangoon General Hospital and began shooting down the doctors and nurses attempting to treat wounded civilians. Two days after, the Sein Lwin resigned the presidency and the people were ecstatic. With hope in the air the people turned to Aung San Sui Kyi the daughter of the former general Aung San who led the independence movement, and she stood and addressed half a million people at Schwedagon Pagoda. It was from this day on that she became the symbol of democracy and for the struggle in Burma. Dispite her efforts 1,500 people in just the first week of the new Military rule were killed and within two weeks, the 8888 movement had collapsed.
The 8888 movement culminated in the 1990 elections, the first free elections in three decades that was swept by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. However she was arrested and put under house arrest before she could take power. She would spend two decades detained under house arrest only to be released for brief periods only to be put under house arrest again.
So while the 8th August started a revolt that would see so many people killed, it also a day of celebration, marking a day for the fallen heroes of the 1988 student-led uprising and a day that marks the beginning of the new Burma and the entry of Aung San Suu Kyi into the country’s politics. Still 26 years on the NLD continue their fight for democracy.
Myanmar law currently states anyone whose spouse or children owe allegiance to a foreign power cannot become president and Suu Kyi was previously married to Michael Aris a late British scholar and her two sons are foreign citizens. It is hoped this law will be changed in time for the elections so that Aung San Suu Kyi can finally take her place as the first democratic leader of Myanmar.
For a brief overview of Burma’s history during this period watch “The Lady” feature film.