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Burma Friday, 14 August, 1998, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Waiting for democracy
The frustration which erupted on the streets of Rangoon in August 1988 had been a long time building.

The people of Burma had lived for more than two decades in a closed and authoritarian society, while at the same time enduring the debilitating effects of a steadily deteriorating economy.

When they found their collective voice in the short-lived period which has been dubbed the Rangoon Spring, they had plenty to protest about.

As well as the restoration of basic human rights, they called for democracy, something their country had only brief experience of in the years after independence.

General Aung San

Burma, a British colony since the 19th century, gained its independence in 1948.

The resistance movement which fought against Japanese rule during the Second World War emerged as the main political force after Japan's defeat.

It was led by General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and a revered national figure. He was assassinated in 1947.

Aung San's successor, U Nu, became Burma's first prime minister. For the first decade of independence there was a parliamentary democracy, set against a backdrop of revolts by communists and other insurgent groups.

Ne Win's 'Burmese Way to Socialism'

General Ne Win (pictured in 1970)
General Ne Win brought this period to an abrupt end when he took power in a military coup in 1962. He set about turning the country into a centralised, one-party socialist state.

Freedom of the press was abolished, along with the constitution. All political parties other than the one sponsored by the government were banned.

The economy, once one of the strongest in Asia, suffered from state control and low world prices for rice and other exports.

Economic troubles

Economic grievances became a key factor in the occasional outbursts of social unrest and rioting in subsequent years. By 1987 Burma had been granted least-developed- nation status by the United Nations.

A child soldier of the Karen National Union, fighting for an independent state for Burma's Karen people
A special meeting of the Burmese leadership in August 1987 resolved to tackle the economic situation. In September, amid rice shortages caused by a poor harvest, the government announced it was withdrawing certain denominations of banknotes from circulation, without compensation.

The move effectively wiped out 80% of the money in circulation. An already poor people were reduced to desperation. Students rioted in the first serious civil unrest since 1976.

Further rioting and demonstrations in the first half of 1988 were violently suppressed by police.

The people speak

Waiting in hope: Burmese listen to Aung San Suu Kyi
Waiting in hope: Burmese listen to Aung San Suu Kyi
On 8th August 1988 massive street demonstrations were held in Rangoon, as well as a general strike.

Tens of thousands of protesters called for democracy, human rights, the resignation of the government and an end to the centrally-run economic system. The demonstrations spread to dozens of other places around the country.

The response from the authorities was brutal: thousands were arrested or killed by the police and army. The military established a new leadership body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council.

Aung San Suu Kyi

The daughter of Burma's independence leader Gen Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi campaigned around the country in 1988 and early 1989, calling for democratic rule and attracting widespread support in spite of the military's ban on gatherings.

In July 1989 she was placed under house arrest. She remained there for six years.

In spite of her detention, Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy to an overwhelming victory in elections in May 1990.

But the military leadership refused to hand over power, and instead responded by arresting opposition leaders.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991.

Speaking on the occasion, her husband Michael Aris said the prize had never been awarded to someone in a situation of "such extreme isolation."

BBC News
"This is what my father would have wanted me to do:" Aung San Suu Kyi in 1989
BBC News
Aung San Suu Kyi's husband Michael Aris in 1991 on her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize
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