Posted August 8, 2008 (Far Eastern Economic Review)
Reflections on Burma's Uprising
by Min Zin
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.