Paying the Debt: 25 Years Later, Burma's Struggle for Freedom Isn't Over

Twenty-five years have now passed since Burma started its struggle for democracy. It began as the “8-8-88 Movement,” a nationwide popular uprising calling for the removal of military dictatorship and the restoration of democratic government. Tens of thousands of young Burmese took to the streets, shouting the slogan: “To achieve democracy is our cause, our cause.”

I was a 14-year-old high school student when I became involved in political activism in 1988 (after two of my siblings were arrested in a student protest at the Rangoon university campus). We distributed pamphlets and leaflets in our schools, staged hit-and-run protests in neighborhoods after school, established contacts with other high schools, and went together to Rangoon University to join their protests. I went on to become one of the founding leaders of the nation-wide high school student union in Burma -- where unions are illegal and just being a member could result in long-term imprisonment.

Student-led protests eventually snowballed into a nationwide popular uprising on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88). You can think of it, without much exaggeration, as the "Burmese Spring." The public, including many sympathetic members of the police force and army, took to the streets; civil society groups mushroomed in every region and social sector; and media freedom thrived as dozen of independent publications sprang up. (Even the journalists at some state-owned media practitioners joined the democracy protests and reported on the demonstrations.) The spring, however, did not last long. Winter came early and nipped our hopes in the bud. On September 18 the military staged a coup, killing hundreds of unarmed protesters. According to independent estimates, at least 10,000 people were killed in August and September of 1988.

After 25 years, veterans of the “Four Eight” uprising came together to commemorate the movement and its fallen heroes. The biggest event in the country was held in Rangoon on the 8th of this month with exhibitions, speeches, and a theatrical performance. More than ten thousand people attended the anniversary event, where they listened to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi give a speech. Many of my former colleagues set up a stand in the exhibition hall to commemorate the activities of high school students in 1988 and to remember our fallen stars including Win Maw Oo, Thet Win Aung, and Maung Maung Kywe. Family members of those who died in the protests of the Four Eight movement or in imprisonment were in full attendance.

For me it was an incredible reunion. For the first time I had a chance to share stories with my former colleagues, and together we filled in many of the missing parts of our revolutionary puzzle.  Some of us died, others went insane, and the rest struggled through a dark age of crackdowns, torture chambers, imprisonment, and exile. Political conviction, a sense of solidarity, and the occasional favorable twist of fate helped us to cope with those days of political turmoil and suffering. Some of us were struck by seemingly avoidable misfortunes, while others managed to make improbable escapes from this worldly hell of autocratic repression.

Many of us tend to agree that the continuing political transition is worthy of appreciation. Some of the key leaders of the previous junta attended or sent goodwill messages to the event as a gesture of acknowledgment of the role the Four Eight movement played in the political opening. In fact, the massive release of political prisoners, the removal of media censorship, Aung San Suu Kyi’s entry into mainstream politics as a member of  parliament, the return of exiled activists, and the country’s re-engagement with the West all constitute unprecedented progress that we have witnessed in a considerably short period of time.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize the very substantial flaws inherent in the process so far. They include the flawed constitution that the military adopted in 2008 to entrench its supremacy in politics by reserving 25 percent of seats in parliament, by allowing the generals to appoint the three most important cabinet ministers, by authorizing the armed forces to take power in case of state emergency, and by limiting meaningful autonomy for ethnic minorities. Meanwhile we are still contending with the effects of simmering civil war and ethnic conflict, rising nationalism and communal violence, deepening poverty and a widening gap between rich and poor. The military has allowed unprecedented popular participation in Burmese politics, but they still control real political and economic power by means of the 2008 constitution and highly skewed wealth distribution. Access to power has been dramatic ally broadened, but the exercise of power remains in the same hands: the military’s.

For this reason, all of us who attended the reunion felt acutely that our mission still has not been accomplished. There is one 8-8-88 memory that has never let go of me. When we were marching during the 1988 democracy movement, the people had nothing to eat, but they made rice bags for us so that we could eat and keep marching. When we collected the rice bags, we always promised them: "You will get democracy one day." So far, we haven’t kept our promise.

I feel that our movement still owes the people for the food we ate. This is a very simple thing, but the sense of responsibility remains. The rice I ate 25 years ago still gives me the energy and power to keep going.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.  



Egypt - A Fire That Will Burn Us All

On Wednesday, I watched aerial footage of Egypt on fire. The bright orange flames in the urban jungle of Cairo reminded me of wild fires on National Geographic. Only here it was buildings, houses, cars, offices, police stations, government buildings, and churches that were ablaze.

From the helicopter that shot the video, I could discern some buildings I recognized. What I couldn't tell however, was what political affiliation their inhabitants are. I couldn't hear what their dinner conversation about politics is like. I squinted hard but still couldn't figure out who they voted for in the last elections.

I always liked this quote from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who in 1974 reflected on how he felt looking at earth from outer space: 

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'

A quarter million miles might be unnecessary for feeling that way about Egyptian politicians. A few kilometers, just enough so they can see the fire eating up the country both literally and figuratively, is sufficient.

They say truth is the first casualty of war. Rationality, apparently, is a sacrifice made early.

The solution can only be political. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership fully realizes Morsy's presidency will not be restored. Yet their supporters and militias continue to chant that tune, in the hope of improving their bargaining position. The stellar rise in violence in the ranks of Morsy's supporters makes it almost impossible to defend them -- when they attack and set fire to houses of worship, offices, subway stations, clashing with inhabitants and with the police with heavy weaponry.

The army leadership, too, both in its capacity of army and government -- let's not begin to pretend we have anything that resembles civilian decision-making at this point -- should know that brute force doesn't disperse a large sit-in: it merely displaces it, galvanizes it, radicalizes it; it potentially gives it more support from otherwise undecided people. It offers direct support, by validating their confrontational position, to the most radical elements within it.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch to describe Egypt's new rulers as operating according to Likud principles. Just like the Israeli conservatives, the Egyptian military is viewing all national interests through the narrow prism of security. Major decisions are taken by police and army generals -- both unaccountable and with blood on their hands. They are further rapidly re-establishing the reign of violence and unaccountability of the Mubarak regime, with former state security officials being reinstated and trying civilians in military courts as we speak.

Every bad decision that could be taken has; everything that can go wrong is.

I want to write the names of over 600 -- perhaps 700, by the time I finish this article -- people who were killed this week, including unarmed protesters, armed ones, police officers, journalists. Some of the dead had their names and address written with a marker on the chest, to avoid being merely a number in a morgue. At the least it will save their families the anguish for lack of news.

I want to write about the mosques that have been used as morgues, the stench of death covering the habitual smell of incense, and the crimson pools of blood accumulating on the worn prayer rugs.

I want to tell you about the churches that have been ransacked and set on fire in Egypt, the hardly unexpected culmination of anti-Christian rhetoric in the discourse of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They ultimately become a soft target for Muslim Brotherhood supporters seeking for revenge. They are scarcely, if at all, protected by the police force. This makes security forces automatically complicit in attacks against them.

The implications are huge and will stay with us for years to come. An increasing number of people are getting emotionally if not physically sucked into the political fight, as they suffer from the violence or its threat, as they lose close friends or even distant acquaintances, as they endure road closures or curfews. Between friends, coworkers, within each family even, the chasm is widening.

Reconciliation becomes increasingly difficult as interests are obscured; buried under political posturing, narrow interests, and more frightfully, vengeful impulses.

The leaders of both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood should be taken into orbit so they can see with some distance what their actions are reaping.

Or perhaps they should be left there.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here