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 You are in: Special Report: 1998: 08/98: Burma  
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Burma Friday, 14 August, 1998, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
Eyewitness: 'Euphoria in Rangoon'
Tom White was the British Cultural Attaché based in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, from 1985 to 1989. He writes here for News online about his memories of the remarkable day when the people of Burma rose up as one in peaceful protest against their rulers:

Monday 8 August 1988 began as a typical, sultry, mid-monsoon Burmese day - dry and sunny but with the threat of thunder and lightning and a downpour to come.

I made it in unusually quick time from home to my office and British Council library on the ground floor of the British Embassy.

The streets were devoid of the usual din of geriatric traffic: overloaded buses converted from World War II army trucks and jeeps, ancient cars and motorbikes, all coughing and backfiring along at less than 10 mph on the 68 octane petrol popularly known as 'Burmese no-star'.

students rangoon 1988
Defiant students hold the military insignia upside-down Photo courtesy T White
Unusually too, there was no queue of students and other library-users waiting to slip in, as unobtrusively as possible, to the only English language public library in this whole country of 42 million people.

The great attraction was not so much Shakespeare and Arthur Ransome, but the availability of newspapers and periodicals from Britain, and the use of a photocopier. Unauthorised possession of even a humble typewriter was, and still is, a criminal offence in Burma.

Hunger for uncensored news

With the written word available only to the brave minority, where it can be used to incriminate and incarcerate at the whim of rulers, the main source of uncensored news about the outside world and Burma itself, was - and still is - the easily-concealed transistor radio.

Some 10 days earlier, a visit from the BBC's Chris Gunness, posing like so many other journalists as a tourist to get his seven-day visa, resulted in a highly significant crop of interviews with students, dissidents and even a disgruntled soldier.

Thousands gathered in Bandoola Square, Rangoon Photo courtesy T White
These were broadcast from London by the BBC's Burmese Language Service to millions of listeners. Crucially, they also announced the date for the first general strike since the military coup of 1962.

A few minutes after 8am on the appointed day there was a flurry of excitement in the street outside the Embassy, and everyone rushed to the windows and doors.

Just down Strand Road, which borders the Irawaddy River, the dockworkers had downed tools to signal the start of a national strike.

Masked students were tearing through the deserted streets on their bicycles to spread the news, and announce the arrival of demonstrators, marching from every outlying township towards City Hall and the spacious Bandoola Square nearby.

'We want full democracy!'

Within an hour, the first columns of marchers had arrived - students in red headbands decorated with their symbol the fighting peacock, monks - who earn their daily crust by begging - carrying their almsbowls upside down in protest, as well as thousands of ordinary townsfolk.

They brandished portraits of Aung San, the 1940s hero of national independence from Britain, old pre-1962 Burmese flags and hand-painted banners calling for democracy and the overthrow of the government and the Burmese Socialist Programme Party.

young girls rangoon august 1988
The joy of free speech for the first time in 26 years Photo courtesy T White
The streets resounded with the chant (in Burmese) 'We want full democracy; that's what we want!'

Not for the first time, the diplomatic corps was entirely taken by surprise by these stirring events. By 11 am, the Ambassador decided to allow us all to go home early.

I set off home with our 75-year-old librarian. She was a remarkable lady who had been in Burma since 1938, the year of the "1300 uprising" that marked the beginning of the end of British Colonial rule.

Today, was the 50th anniversary of that event - commemorated at the auspicious time of eight minutes past eight on the eighth month of 1988.

A trip that had taken nine minutes that morning took nearly two hours to retrace.

We stopped to view the joyous, peaceful parades and euphoric slogan-chanting of a people celebrating their first experience of free speech for 26 years.

The terrible outcome, five weeks later, after army trouble-makers had done their worst mowing down the demonstrators and strikers in their thousands, was, on that glorious day, happily unimaginable.

Links to more Burma stories are at the foot of the page.


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