THE uprising in 1988 that shook Burma to the core was among the biggest people-power movements ever seen—in scale, in duration, and in the ferocity and bloodshed with which it was crushed. The massacre in Beijing a year later is better remembered around the world, but thousands more died in Burma.
Another difference is that on the Chinese mainland, the memory of Tiananmen is still ruthlessly suppressed. The same was true of the 1988 tumult in Myanmar (the country’s name since 1989)—until recently. This month the 25th anniversary of the high point of the movement—the massive nationwide strikes and demonstrations of August 8th, known as “8888”—was marked in the new, open, reformed Myanmar by a high-profile gathering in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, the biggest city. In that respect, at least, Myanmar’s protest movement, a quarter of a century on, appears to have succeeded where China’s failed.
Not even the movement’s leaders, however, are yet claiming a more fundamental victory. The opposition has seats in parliament; the press is free; exiled dissidents are returning safely home; and many expect Aung San Suu Kyi, long a symbol of thwarted opposition hopes, to become president in 2015. Yet few are confident that power has shifted irrevocably to the people and away from the army, which put down the 1988 movement, locked up Miss Suu Kyi and, but for one heady interlude that year and another in the past two years, has ruled since 1962.
The uprising in 1988 was as close as the army has come to being swept from power. The onset of the protests was strangely similar to the way the self-immolation of a Tunisian street-vendor in 2011 sparked the Arab spring. In March 1988 a brawl in a Rangoon teashop led to the death of a student. The incident escalated, thanks to the ineptitude and thuggery of the security forces, into a more general anti-government movement, led by students. The ground had been laid by a quarter-century of incompetent government, by a sense of national humiliation at their country being accorded “least-developed country” status by the UN, and, especially, by the sudden cancellation of large-denomination banknotes, wiping out people’s savings.
The revolution failed partly because the opposition, outlawed for so long, and with Miss Suu Kyi newly returned from exile, could not pull together. Crucially, the army, although some units joined the protests, was ready in the end to kill as many people as it took to stay in power. So this week’s commemoration of 1988 was as irrefutable a proof as any of how much Myanmar has changed under Thein Sein, the former general who is now its president. The event opened with a speech from Paw Oo Tun, leader of the student movement. The nom de guerre he adopted in 1988, Min Ko Naing, or “conqueror of kings”, has stuck, despite the years he has since spent in prison.
He and his “88 Generation” of student jailbirds, most freed only last year, are attempting to reclaim a central role. Min Ko Naing himself wants to stay above party politics. But some of his colleagues talk of forming their own party, or of joining Miss Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. In big part, politics will now have to do with amending the 2008 constitution, which was foisted on Myanmar in a rigged referendum and which guarantees the army a decisive say.
Among the audience at the Yangon gathering were veterans of the students’ futile “armed struggle”, which some joined as they fled the crackdown on September 18th 1988, when the army retook power and imposed martial law. This week the main student armed group agreed to a formal ceasefire, as most of the ethnic insurgencies along the border with Thailand already have.
Some exiles were back in Yangon for the first time. Old comrades reunited with tears, hugs and disbelieving faces. Some had endured malarial border camps, others Myanmar’s torture-ridden penal system. A replica of a prison cell was part of the accompanying exhibition.
One student activist who fled to the border and returned last year is Soe Myint. In 1990 he highlighted Myanmar’s plight with a dramatic stunt. He and a friend hijacked a plane en route from Bangkok to Yangon. They made it fly to Calcutta (now Kolkata) by pretending that the bar of soap inside the statuette they carried of a laughing Buddha was a bomb. Mr Soe Myint then launched a news service covering Myanmar from India, using underground reporters. They are now part of Myanmar’s mainstream media. None has suffered reprisals. They produced a special supplement to mark this week’s jubilee.
Miss Suu Kyi herself attended the chief commemorative ceremony on August 8th. Even the government sent a senior minister, Aung Min, to the event. Former prisoners made a point of showing him the cell. The government once saw the 88 Generation as subversive criminals. Now it cannot afford to shun them.
Who controls the past…
Yet some opposition diehards still reject compromise, boycotting this week’s events because army types were invited. It points to a big question about Myanmar’s dramatic changes: if the revolutionaries have won, albeit a quarter of a century late, who has lost? Neither government nor army has apologised for past transgressions. The generals have kept their powers and privileges, while their business cronies still coin it. Meanwhile, the theme of this week’s love-in was not “truth and justice”, but “peace and reconciliation”. With no one punished for the atrocities of 1988 (or those before and since), Kyaw Min Yu, an 88 Generation leader known as Ko Jimmy, asks simply: who still has the power? His answer is the army.
He may be right. But as he and his colleagues have shown with their celebration of 1988, the forces of progress, reform and sanity have at last won control of Myanmar’s recent history. The battle now is for the future. Economist.com/blogs/banyan