As Myanmar Opens Up, A Look Back On A 1988 Uprising

Aug 8, 2013
Originally published on August 9, 2013 1:21 pm

Until two years ago, Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled by the longest-running military dictatorship in the world. In 2010, the military began to loosen its grip on the country, increasing civil freedoms and offering some political and economic opportunity for citizens.

But some are wondering whether the country can truly transition to democracy if it fails to reconcile with its brutal past.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of a violent chapter in the country's history: the nationwide democracy uprising of Aug. 8, 1988, and the harsh military crackdown that ended it.

Despite being rich in resources, the country went into a long period of economic stagnation following a 1962 military takeover.

"The government remained in power through fear. It reached the point where people were unwilling to even mention the name of the dictator," Ne Win, says Burt Levin, the American ambassador in Rangoon at the time. "In the summer of 1988, the population finally said, 'Enough is enough.' "

Students began to voice their resentment over the economy and the government's wide restrictions on personal freedom.

"We students had no hopes for any jobs after school," says Htay Kywe, an early student leader. "We were totally lost."

A disagreement in a tea shop between university students and people linked to the government eventually grew into a student-led movement calling for democracy in the summer of 1988.


Weeks of organizing crested with a nationwide general strike known as "8/8/88," a date chosen for its numerological power. Thousands of people marched on the streets of Rangoon, the capital at the time, and in cities and towns around the country.

"It was like you were watching waves at the beach," says student activist Khin Ohmar.

Demonstrators sang the national anthem and chanted slogans like, "End the military dictatorship! Daw Aye, Daw Aye! (Our cause, our cause!) To set up democracy: Daw Aye, Daw Aye!"

In Rangoon, the marchers converged at City Hall, where a festive mood prevailed into the evening.

"This is the first time people talk freely, they talk how they feel and how they suffer," remembers Moethee Zun, another student leader.

Shortly before midnight on Aug. 8, troops opened fire on demonstrators there and elsewhere in Rangoon. Despite this, demonstrations continued to grow and spread throughout August.

"People were scared, but at the same time, the momentum continued to increase," says Khin Ohmar. "The Buddhist monks, the housewives union — they were all joining in the street."

A Leader Emerges

As the protests grew from a student-led movement into a nationwide uprising, people started to search for leadership. In late summer, Aung San Suu Kyi, future Nobel Laureate, stepped onto the scene.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burmese independence leader Aung San, was in the country by coincidence. She had lived abroad most of her life and had returned to Burma only in March to take care of her ill mother.

Student activists convinced her to join the movement and, on Aug. 26, she made her first major speech at Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda.

"At first I had some doubts about Aung San Suu Kyi," says Myo Myint, a former soldier and 1988 activist who went to Shwedagon to hear her speech.

But he, like many in the crowd of half-million that day, was convinced by the time Suu Kyi was finished talking. The democracy movement finally had its leader.

Long-ruling dictator Ne Win had stepped down in late July, but most Burmese understood that he remained the master behind his replacements in the regime. As the protests continued through the summer, the rulers promised multiparty elections, but this failed to satisfy the demonstrators.

By September, much of the government administration had collapsed as civil servants, police units and even some soldiers joined the protests. Activists organized citizens to take up a number of basic government tasks. Student leaders and a handful of older politicians began to build what they hoped would be the foundation of a transitional government.

The Military Cracks Down

The nationwide movement came to a screeching halt on Sept. 18, when the government announced a new military ruler, imposed martial law and banned all public demonstrations. The following day the military began a coordinated crackdown across the country.

"We could see from the embassy, students cowering behind trees without any weapons, and they were being shot," says Levin, the former ambassador. "It was bone chilling."

When the shooting finally ended, approximately 3,000 people had been killed in the uprising. Another 3,000 Burmese were put in prison, and some 10,000 activists had fled the country.

Looking To Elections In 2015

In 1990, the military government finally held the elections first promised in 1988.

And, to everyone's surprise, they were considered free and fair. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 80 percent of the parliamentary seats. The government ignored the results and rounded up a number of opposition politicians, including Suu Kyi.

She spent years under house arrest. She was released in 2010, and, last year, was elected to parliament along with a handful of other members of her National League for Democracy. She's planning to run for president in the nationwide elections planned for 2015.

Many students who first became activists in 1988 spent much of the last 25 years in jail or in exile. Today they're continuing their democracy and human rights work. Many of them are meeting in Rangoon this week to mark the 25th anniversary of 8/8/88.

Produced by Bruce Wallace, Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. Edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Twenty-five years ago, university students in Burma sparked an uprising. They chose the date of their protest for its numerological power, 8/8/88, August 8th, 1988. Though their attempt to overthrow the country's military dictatorship was ultimately suppressed brutally, it planted the seeds for the transition to democracy we're seeing today.

Nineteen-eighty-eight was also the moment Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi first appeared on the Burmese political scene.

Producers Bruce Wallace and Sarah Kate Kramer, of Radio Dairies, take us back now to a time when the country seemed on the verge of dramatic change.


BURT LEVIN: I'm Burt Levin. In 1988, I was the American ambassador in Rangoon, Burma. This was the strangest post I'd ever served in the Foreign Service.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Since 1962, when the gates of the country were locked to the outside world, Burma has seemed frozen in time.

LEVIN: There weren't any books. There wasn't any cultural life. The government remained in power through fear. It reached the point where people were unwilling to even mention the name of the dictator. And this was a government which had taken a very richly endowed nation and left its population increasingly poor. It was a sad situation. And now, in the summer of 1988, the population finally said enough is enough.

KHIN OHMAR: My name is Khin Ohmar. In 1988, I was a student at the university studying chemistry.

MOETHEE ZUN: My name is Moethee Zun. I was a student leader in Rangoon.

OHMAR: As young people, we were all like full of revolutionary spirit.

ZUN: We want some kind of freedom. Even we don't know exactly yet what is a democracy.

OHMAR: We all started to wear white tops and black sarongs, and start to look for allies in the neighborhood - in tea shops, you know - just with our eyes searching to see if anyone is like us. We just felt like, yes, yes, yes, let's call for the change of this government.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Chris Gunness, recently in Burma, has just sent this report from the region.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: The students overwhelming demand has been for multi-party democracy. There are reports tonight...

CHRIS GUNNESS: My name is Christopher Gunness. And in 1988, I was an underground BBC reporter in Burma. There was a huge feeling that the country was on the cusp of some revolutionary events. And the whole thing really took off with a general strike on the 8th of August in 1988.

OHMAR: In the morning, on the 8th of '88, it was so quiet. Nobody was out on the street. And then we started to hear noises, you know. And then you start to see these people marching. It was like you were watching waves at the beach, getting closer and closer.


ZUN: We hold hand-in-hand and we started to sing our national song. (Singing in foreign language)


ZUN: I was just so happy. This is the first time people talked freely. They talk how they feel and how they suffer.


GUNNESS: The whole of Burma was rising up. There were crowds of over one and a half million. I mean, the streets completely packed with people.


OHMAR: I felt like, wow, this is amazing. We did it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: In Burma, anti-government protests have continued overnight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Buddhist monks were reported urging on the crowds from their golden pagodas with speeches against oppression.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Contingent of heavily armed troops are being deployed. There's been sporadic shooting but the demonstrators seem undeterred.

OHMAR: People were scared but, at the same time, the momentum continued to increase. The Buddhist monks, the housewives union, you know...


OHMAR: They were all joining on the streets.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: There are reports tonight that the government may be on the verge of major concessions. Certainly all there agree that immediate action is needed if the rising tide of unrest is to diminish.


LEVIN: As a concession, the Burmese military said that they would hold elections.

OHMAR: Because we didn't trust the government's lip service at the time, we knew that we couldn't just sit back and wait for the democracy to come to us. So we need a leader. But where is our leader?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: It's August 1988, demonstrators hold aloft a photograph of the country's anti-colonial hero, General Aung San. It's on this day, before this vast crowd that his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, takes on his political mantle.

LEVIN: Now, Aung San Suu Kyi, this is the daughter of the George Washington of Burmese independence. She had effectively exiled herself from Burma. She was not welcomed in Burma by the regime. She had married an Englishman. She was in country by sheer coincidence. And while she was there, this outbreak takes place. And she steps out and makes a public speech.


AUNG SAN SUU KYI: (Foreign language spoken)

ZUN: At first, I had some doubts about Aung San Suu Kyi, because she had no experience being in Burma. She got her university degree from the Oxford University in England. I think she must not be our leader but I listen her speech.

KYI: (Foreign language spoken)

ZUN: She said this is true. I'm married to the foreign British gentleman. But now I am ready to sacrifice all of my life for my country, for the democracy.


ZUN: How she loved our country, how she loved our people. I, you know, I changed my mindset.


OHMAR: She could capture the crowd. She has that charisma. So I thought oh, my God, this is the leader we've been looking for many, many years.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: So, Aung San Suu Kyi, may I ask how come you're involved in this movement?

KYI: Well, I think it's a movement in which everybody should be involved, because the good of the country is a concern of everybody. I think that in every country we must hold on to the principles of rights and justice and unity.




UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Starting about two weeks ago, many soldiers join the demonstrations demanding an end to 26 years of dictatorship. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged more to defect.

MYO MYINT: My name is Myo Myint. I am former soldier. One day in 1988, there is a demonstration in front of the military base. And one of my friends asked me: Hey, you are former soldier, you should go out on the stage and talk to the soldier. So I climb up on the stage. At first, I was very afraid. The commander order all of the soldiers: Be ready, load. But I started to talk the soldiers: I am soldier like you. We should not fight each other. We are brother.

During my speech, they listen very quietly. I looked around, their guns are dropped, dropped, dropped, dropped down. I thought that time if their commander ordered them to shoot me, they would deny to follow their officer.


LEVIN: Before long, you had police units joining in demonstrations. You had the Burmese navy. You have the Burmese air force.

OHMAR: The actual machinery of the country, the administration, collapsed. Because, you know, civil servants stopped going to work. Instead, they joined the demonstrations on the street.

LEVIN: The government, in is political ineptness, didn't seem to have the ability or the desire to work out some kind of negotiated end to this. They just kept stalling and stalling. And all these incidents finally sparked a massive crackdown.

ZUN: September 18, the government announced from their TV and radio: From now on, Burma army take over again.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: Instead free elections, tonight it looks as though Burma may be in for a bloodbath. A new hard-line president seized power. He ordered a curfew, banned demonstrations, and told the army to fire on protestors.

OHMAR: The soldiers, when they kneeled down and aimed their guns to the crowd, it is understood that they are about to shoot. But if you are ordered to kill your mother or your sister or brother, are you going to do it? That's my question.

GUNNESS: I remember, it was in the afternoon Rangoon time and suddenly there was the most horrendous, terrifying sound.


LEVIN: We could see from the embassy, students cowering behind trees without any weapons. And they were being shot. These students were running from the violence and the soldiers running after them shooting them as if it was on a rabbit hunt. It was bone chilling.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We didn't even get the number of people that died. Nobody knew. The bodies that were shot, they were taken to the crematorium and they were burned. Some parents, they are still wondering where their children are.


OHMAR: After the militia coup our friends started to get arrested one after another, one after another. So many of us, we had no choice but to leave the country. So the mood completely changed. And about a year after, Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest by the regime.


LEVIN: The uprising of '88 was bloodier and larger scale than Tiananmen in China in 1989. But almost no one has ever heard of these uprisings.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: During '88 I got a bloodstained bullet. I kept it for some time. I needed proof. I needed proof, you know, to show that they shot at the people.

OHMAR: This is a country, every step of the history hid under the cupboard. So how can we even move forward if the rulers of this country continue to be denying the real history of the country? And now after 25 years, yes, the country has taken a few small steps towards democracy. But what does it really mean? Without the truth, we won't be able to move forward.

CORNISH: Approximately 3,000 people are believed to have died during the 1988 uprising. The government of Myanmar, as Burma is now officially called, has promised national elections in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to run for president. The people you heard in this story are former U.S. Ambassador Burt Levin, former BBC reporter Christopher Gunness and democracy activists Tay Shway, Khin Ohmar, Moethee Zun, Myo Myint and Nita Mae. Our story was produced by Bruce Wallace, Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.