At least 48 activists have been arrested in Myanmar by the junta for a protest march marking the 20th anniversary of the 88 generation movement. The activists were reportedly staging a silent walk through the northwest town of Taunggok. An estimated 3,000 people were killed nationwide during the weeks of protests in 1988.
Activists across Asia mark the 88 students' uprising
August 8, 1988 marked the beginning of a student-led uprising in Myanmar. It was a movement against 26 years of military rule and a movement for democracy. The protests quickly spread across the country and drew people from almost all walks of life.
For six weeks the country witnessed regular rallies and demonstrations. Soe Aung, the spokesperson of the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) recalled the events: “I was one of the organisers of the student union formed in the southern state of Burma at the time of the 1988 uprising. We participated in demonstrations almost every day with the monks.”
But the military regime reacted with force. Demonstrations were brutally crushed and the military reasserted control. An estimated 3,000 people were killed in the uprising. Soe Aung adds, “It was very violent. They used excessive force to control the protestors. In my home town alone, more than hundred people died. I had already left the town by that time.”
The opposition in Myanmar today hails the 1988 movement as a "turning point" in Myanmar's history. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was until then known as the daughter of liberation hero Aung San, instantly became the national face of the movement. She helped form the National League for Democracy party, but was soon put under house arrest by the junta. Despite her detention, her party won elections in 1990 by a landslide, though it was never allowed to govern.
The 88 movement was almost forgotten by the world until last August, when the country’s opposition activists, monks and dissidents staged a series of protests against a hike in fuel prices. But the military hit back again, and with force, as in the past. Thousands of activists were arrested and many fled.
Soe Aung, however, believes the military’s attempt to crush the movement has not made the opposition weak: “Despite the continued oppression from the military, the opposition inside Burma is growing, rather, and the sprit of the 88 movement is stronger than ever. Especially, we can see that the younger generation, who were not born at the time, have formed organisations or joined other organisations. Last year they joined monks in demonstrations.”
Meanwhile, international pressure is growing on Myanmar's military regime to implement democratic reforms and free political prisoners, including opposition leader Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the last 19 years under house arrest.
Speaking in Bangkok on Thursday US President George Bush urged Myanmar’s regime to release opposition leader Suu Kyi. “America reiterates our call on Burma's military junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners, and we will continue working until the people of Burma have the freedom they deserve,” he said.
Activist Soe Aung, however, insists that the international community, especially Myanmar’s allies such as China, could put more pressure on the regime to bring about change. “We want to tell the international community that they have to join hands in a unified, concerted effort and urge the military regime to come to the dialogue table: especially the Chinese regime, who have always tried to defend the military regime at the UN Security Council. The stability in Burma will be beneficial to the region.”
The junta reiterates that it is serious about bringing democratic reforms to the country. It adopted a new Constitution in May this year and announced plans to hold elections in 2010. But rights activists call the whole process a sham and say the country can never see the light of true democracy unless opposition leaders are involved in the process.