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.


အိုးေ၀ေအာင္ said...

can i get your blog link?

Anonymous said...

We can't forget the past. However, instead of just dwelling upon the past events, it is time to think of what we can do in the future so that sacrifices in the past would not be in vain.

In my humble opinion, past is there for us to reflect upon and to learn from before our next course of actions.

ကုိေအာင္ said...

U can visit my blog.

အိုးေ၀ေအာင္ said...

ဆီပံုးမရွိတဲ့ဘေလာ့တခုဟာ ဆံုးျပီျဖစ္တဲ့ အန္ကယ္ႀကီး မရွိေတာ့တဲ့ အန္တီ့ရဲ့ဘ၀လို မတင့္တယ္ဘူးေပါ့ကြယ္။

အိုးေ၀ေအာင္ said...


အိုးေ၀ေအာင္ said...

Min Zin: Burmese activist crosses boundaries

Moch. N. Kurniawan, The Jakarta Post, Berkeley, California

When applying for his masters degree at the University of California (UC) Berkeley this year, Min Zin, a 35-year-old Burmese dissident, encountered a big problem.

He had never finished high school.

Min Zin was kicked out of high school in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1988 for his political involvement against the military junta.

After this, Min Zin had gone into hiding to avoid arrest until 1997 before fleeing overseas where he worked as a journalist for years, voicing democracy for the Burmese people.

"So when I applied for a masters degree in Southeast Asian studies at UC Berkeley, I had no high school of undergraduate diplomas, and that caused headaches for the faculty," he said.

However, UC Berkeley showed its grace. Endorsed by five professors at the university, Min Zin was eventually accepted as a graduate student despite some concerns over the issue of favoritism.

"This might not have happen at other universities or in other countries. I was so grateful with UC's decision," Min Zin said in the courtyard of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

The opportunity to study at UC Berkeley means a lot to Min Zin. It means he could gain access to tons of books and other material on his and other Southeast Asia countries, and regularly discuss it with experts on the region.

"I am always interested in Southeast Asian studies, particularly on Indonesia because it has a lot of similarities to Burma," Min said explained.

"As a neighbor, Indonesia is doing a good job managing the transition from an authoritarian rule to democracy. Indonesia is fighting hard against its deep-rooted corruption, and is dealing well with multi-ethnic and religious radicalism issues -- all of which could be studied by my home country."

It is not without good reason Min Zin suggested Indonesia was a good example of an authoritarian-turned-democratic country, since millions of Burmese people have been fed with news that "democracy will only lead to separatism and the collapse of a country, just like in the Balkans".

"Indonesia is really a good case study for us to examine, not the Balkans," he said, admitting that reading books about Indonesia had always thrilled him.

Min Zin's reflections on his country showed that his mind and heart remained their, despite the fact he is now living far away in the U.S..

"If I could return home today, I would go. I belong to Burma. My family is there. I want to dedicate myself to establish good journalism and education, because I realize that education is the key to developing Burma."

Min believes that journalism -- through radio, print and television -- could be a vital tool for the informal dissemination of educational material to the Burmese people, since the formal education system there is very limited.

"Even if there was a political change tomorrow, our formal education wouldn't be available for everyone in the country within 10 or 15 years. People will remain reliant on informal education. That's why the media people are very important," he said.

Min Zin may be far from home, but he is holding on to a message Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi sent him in early 2003, urging him to continue with his education and emphasizing that it would be a valuable investment for Burma.

The message was not given by chance, as Min Zin has known Suu Kyi since 1988 when he arranged for Burmese student unions to join peaceful democratic protests against the military junta. He witnessed the latter responding brutally with bullets, killing some 10,000 civilians.

Suu Kyi was put under house arrest later in 1989, as the military junta launched raids against democratic activists. Min Zin managed to escape, but his father, who passed away a few years ago, was imprisoned.

Ever since, Min Zin has moved from one place to another in Burma, hiding from the military searches, and after Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 1995, he has communicated with her regularly to exchange ideas.

In December 1996, Min Zin was one of the key organizers of massive student demonstrations, demanding better education and democratic reforms.

Instead of fulfilling the call, the military junta cracked down on the protests, arresting Min Zin's student activist colleagues, however they still could not find him.

As the military continued to hunt for him, Min Zin decided to leave the country, sneaking out to neighboring Thailand by trekking through the jungle for five days, in 1997.

In Thailand, he began his career as a journalist in Radio Free Asia (RFA Burmese Service) and the Irrawaddy English magazine.

Then Min Zin got an opportunity to be a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, in 2001. He went back to the U.S. again in 2004, this time to work full-time at RFA, whose headquarters are located in Washington D.C.. Min once appeared in an MTV documentary celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela that allowed him to talk with the prominent world figure.

Since leaving RFA in late 2007, Min Zin is now working as a freelance journalist, contributing articles to the Thai-based Bangkok Post newspaper, Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and The Irrawaddy online and magazine.

Min still maintains his status as a Carnegie teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, and is currently studying in the University's Southeast Asian studies program.

Those are the long and dynamic journeys Min Zin has made, his best assets to help rebuild Burma.

Min Zin believes that the only way to solve Burma's protracted crisis is that the military open a political dialog with the democratic opposition parties and ethnic groups.

Min says the military-drafted constitution and follow-up elections in 2010 would not bring about the much-needed state-building process, a process in which all parties rally together and make their voices heard.

Instead of state-building, the country is now crumbling with repression, poverty and a humanitarian crisis, he said.

Min said the UN-led international community -- especially countries like Indonesia -- should not give up their attempts to enforce an inclusive political resolution in Burma by 2010.

"Of course, I am not optimistic," he said.

"But if the international community lets the generals in Burma continue their unilateral 'road map', the country will experience a crash landing."