Page last updated at 15:29 GMT, Wednesday, 6 August 2008 16:29 UK

Was Burma's 1988 uprising worth it?

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

Anti-government protesters in Rangoon on 6 August 1988
A series of anti-government rallies took place in Burma in August 1988

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.

Aung Din (seated, red shirt) at a student's union meeting in March 1989. To his left is Min Ko Naing, the union's chairman, who is now in jail. (Image: US Campaign for Burma)
Aung Din (centre, in red) was jailed for his involvement in the protests

"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.

Burmese soldiers face protesters in Rangoon on 26 August 1988

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 (Image: Min Zin)
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."

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