Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Reflections on Burma's Uprising

August 2008

Reflections on Burma's Uprising

by Min Zin

Posted August 8, 2008 (Far Eastern Economic Review)

Twenty years have now passed since Burma started its struggle for democracy in what is famously known as the “8-8-88 Movement.” It was a nationwide uprising calling for the removal of the military dictatorship and a restoration of the democratic government.

Back in 1988, I was a 14-year-old high school student. Two of my older siblings had been arrested and tortured for their involvement in the initial student protests and another brother was expelled from school. This shocked our whole family.

It was then that my political activism began. We distributed pamphlets and leaflets in our schools, staged hit-and-run protests in neighborhoods afterwards, and contacted other high schools and went together to universities to join their protests. Later on I became one of the founding leaders of the nation-wide high school student union in Burma, a place where unions are illegal and just being a member of one could result in long-term imprisonment.

It was these student-led protests that eventually snowballed into a nationwide popular uprising on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88).

However, the military staged a coup on September 18 and responded with bullets. When the troops started firing on protesters that night, I was with hundreds of fellow high-school students in Rangoon, participating in a hunger strike. In the following days, I found myself in the thick of the shootings and saw students killed before my very eyes. According to independent estimates, at least 10,000 people were killed in the August and September of 1988.

Even in the aftermath of the crackdown, I still felt awed and shocked. I reflected hard on what had happened. We had stood for principles of truth and justice and the whole population had supported us. So why hadn’t we succeeded? It was a question that took me a while to answer.

After the military coup, I continued to engage in clandestine political activities for reform with other political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become an icon of the Burmese democracy movement. Because of my activities, the military intelligence arrived at my house to arrest me on July 18, 1989. Since I was not at home, they arrested my father instead.

Despite being hunted by the military and threatened with the imprisonment, death and harassment of my family, I decided not to give up and went underground. This is where, despite moving from place to place, I remained for more than eight years.

As time passed, especially during my time on the run, evading arrest, I came to resolve my confusion and realize that though it is important to stand up for one's principles in politics, principle alone cannot guarantee political victory. Political activists need to understand what distinguishes the principled who succeed from the principled who fail. The common complacency about being on the ‘right’ side actually accomplishes little unless coupled with a sound strategy for achieving concrete goals. Our idealism even runs the risk of blinding activists from what is actually happening, and, when push comes to shove, may leave them stranded in irrelevance.

In this way, the central reason for the failure of 1988 uprising was that the opposition did not provide the leadership to “close the deal.” When the street protests reached their highest peak in late August through September 18, the government had become defunct. The opposition leadership, however, would fail to take advantage of the emerging power vacuum. Neither did they unify themselves to push for regime change, nor did they negotiate a transition of power.

After I fled to the Thai border in late 1997, I decided that journalism was the best way for me to support Burma’s pro-democracy movement, since it allowed me to reach people inside Burma as well a growing international audience which follows Burma's affairs. In time, my perspective has also broadened and I have been more and more convinced that the Burmese opposition has no “end game” strategy. They have often confused the means—mass movements—with the ends—victory itself—and in doing so failed to achieve the intended result when protests actually reached their peak. This lack of planning was shown again in last September’s demonstrations.

The fact that we are still unable to translate principle into victory is more than frustrating for me, since it always comes with unspeakable costs. More than ten thousand peaceful protesters have been killed since the 1988 uprising and about two thousand political prisoners, including my brother, remain in jail. Moreover, the plight of the ethnic minorities under the military's oppression has been immeasurable in its cruelty.

But, despite all this, a specific memory keeps me going, something from the 8-8-88 uprising. When we were marching during the 1988 democracy movement, most of us had nothing to eat. Yet some in the crowd would make rice bags for us so that we could keep marching. When we collected those rice bags, we would promise them, "you will get democracy one day".

Yet I have not kept my promise.

Whenever I feel dejected by the lack of progress, I tell myself that I must fulfill the promise that I gave to my people—I owe them for the rice bags I ate. This is a very simple thing, but it has kept those feelings of responsibility for all these years. The rice bags I received 20 years ago still give me power and energy to keep going on.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Was Burma's 1988 uprising worth it?

BBC News

Was Burma's 1988 uprising worth it?

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

On 8 August 1988 cities across Burma were packed with demonstrators.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched through the then capital, Rangoon, calling for a transition to democracy and an end to military rule.

They were the largest mass protests in the country since independence in 1948 - and it looked for a while as though they might achieve results.

But six weeks later, at least 3,000 protesters were dead, thousands more were jailed and the military was firmly back in control.

Aung Din, then an engineering student at Rangoon Institute of Technology, was involved from the start.

Like many, he was angry about tight military control, economic crisis and nonsensical currency reforms that had wiped out most people's savings.

On 13 March 1988, he took part in a protest at his university. Riot police reacted with force. Three students were shot, and one, Phone Maw, was killed. Three days later, another student demonstration was brutally crushed.

Universities were shut, but the students were angry and determined. When they reopened in June, rallies gathered pace.

"We had to hide, but we had lots of meetings," said Aung Din. "We felt that there was no justice or freedom. So we decided we had to bring about an uprising that would end single-party rule."

A massive rally was planned - and 8/8/88, with its instantly recognisable numbers, emerged as the date to hold it.

"It was amazing," said Aung Din. "Columns of people came from all over, and where we met in downtown Rangoon, there were about 500,000 people. At the same time, in other townships, everywhere people were marching for the same things, for democracy and human rights."

Another of the marchers was 14-year-old Min Zin. His older brother and sister had been arrested after the March protests, his brother tortured.

"I was too young - I didn't know much about democracy and human rights. I only knew that this was really wrong, so it was really a spontaneous response," he said.

He helped organise a high school students' union and produced pamphlets calling for an uprising.

"We were so confident when we saw the people really took to the streets and joined the demonstration. It was quite wonderful," he said.


Then it turned bloody. Near midnight, troops opened fire on protesters at City Hall. The next day, they targeted crowds at Shwedagon Pagoda, where Min Zin was.

"It was the first time I saw my friends and colleagues - including some even younger than me - get killed in front of my eyes."

Hundreds of people are thought to have died - but protests continued. Civil servants and monks joined the demonstrators as the government floundered.

Then the movement found its public face in Aung San Suu Kyi.

On 26 August, the daughter of Burma's independence leader stood outside Shwedagon Pagoda and addressed a huge crowd on the need for democracy.

At that stage, said Aung Din, victory appeared possible.

But it was not to be. On 18 September the army struck back. Soldiers fired repeatedly at crowds. Hundreds more were killed. Some fled, others were arrested.

So began a crackdown on the protesters. Even as the military promised democratic elections, its agents hunted opponents.

They came for Min Zin, but he was not there, so they arrested his father. Min Zin went into hiding for nine years.

Aung Din, by then vice-chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, was working to organise parties into a united front for the polls. He was arrested on 23 April 1989, tortured and jailed for four years and three months.

While he was in prison, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the elections - but the military ignored the result.

'Fulfil my promise'

Twenty years on, what has changed? The military remains firmly in control. Troops violently crushed anti-government protests in September 2007, with the loss of dozens of lives. Most of those who led the 1988 protests are either in overseas exile, in hiding or in prison.

Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, while the military has just forced through a new constitution that further cements its grip on power. Despite Burma's natural resources, millions live in abject poverty.

But, said Aung Din, there is still reason to hope. He is still involved in the pro-democracy movement, as executive director of the US Campaign for Burma.

"Many thought that what happened in 1988 would stay in 1988. Nobody expected that it would continue, but it has survived to this day."

He was encouraged at the sight of young people on the streets in September last year.
Min Zin wants to see more strategy from the opposition

"We need a new generation of leaders to hold our flag - and 2007 created that generation of students inside the country. They are smarter than us and they are growing now."

Min Zin had to leave Burma in 1997. He was an activist and journalist for several years, but is now going to university in the US.

He wants the new generation of activists to learn from the past.

"You can expect spontaneous demonstrations against the military - but the problem is that you have to be organised. My concern is whether it can lead to a genuine political change."

Part of the reason the 8/8/88 uprising failed was because the opposition had no "end-game" strategy, he said. They lacked unity and so failed to seize their opportunity.

He worries that even today, many of the activists "do not try to translate principle into victory".

Sometimes, Min Zin says, he feels frustrated. "I spent all of my adult life in the democracy movement and I haven't seen any concrete results towards a transition to democracy."

But a specific memory keeps him going. On 8/8/88, despite their poverty, people gave rice to the demonstrators so that they could keep on marching.

"When we collected the rice bags, we always promised them: 'You will get democracy one day'. So I never met my promise."

"I need to fulfil my promise that I gave to my people."