1988 — Imagine the streets flooded with thousands upon thousands of protesters for months on end. Imagine police stations getting ransacked, protesters continuously demanding the resignation of the country’s leader, university students starting further rioting throughout the country — imagine soldiers, under direction from the authorities, opening fire on unarmed civilians. Imagine them killing thousands.
This was the case of the 8888 Uprising in Burma/Myanmar 30 years ago. The country was in a state of civil unrest, following several devastating internal events — for example, the year before, the government demonetized two types of banknotes without warning. That would be on par with the U.S. government suddenly telling anyone with $10 and $20 bills that those bills are suddenly worth nothing (which would be even more devastating in the 80s than it would be now). This was one of many problems.
However, the central issue all stemmed from 1962, when the Burma Socialist Programme Party took over Burma and established a socialist government. All other parties were abolished under “The Law Protecting National Unity,” which in turn led to the deliberate strengthening of the military to enforce their rapidly emerging totalitarian government. The country tried a system of autarky, which means the country is completely self-sufficient, but it only suffered as a result. Burma would quickly become one of the world’s most poverty-stricken nations.
The protests demanded the installment of a multi-party democracy, and it started with university students from Rangoon (now known as Yangon) taking to the streets in protest. Eventually they were joined by more and more Burmese citizens over months of protesting, and though they started in March of 1988, the protests would continue all the way into September. Muslims, Buddhists, regular Burmese citizens, ethnic minorities from the surrounding areas — all sorts of people joined in protest of the totalitarian government.
The man who had installed the communist party in Burma, Ne Win, infamously commanded: “If the army shoots, it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It shoots straight to kill.” This is a sensible command in the context of combat in a war zone, but as a standing order during civilian protests? Soldiers would nonetheless carry out massacre after massacre, gunning down protesters in the streets. After Ne Win’s resignation, Sein Lwin took over and earned the nickname “The Butcher of Rangoon,” carrying on that same legacy.
As time went on, things became much more complicated. Personnel from the military and police were fraternizing and essentially defecting to the civilian side, whereas some military personnel were goading protesters into violence and subsequently opening fire.
Eventually, the military took control of the country and martial law went into effect. Protesters (known as “looters”) were violently forced to stop with their protests and eventually everyone went home.
The Burmese government officially says that 95 people were killed in total, and approximately 240 were injured. Most other estimates put the dead at anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000. Thousands more went to jail and many would die there.
It’s called the 8888 Uprising because many of the primary events culminated on the August 8, 1988.
For a long time, even mentioning the 8888 Uprising could land a Burmese citizen in jail. The government, which has been embroiled in the longest standing civil war in modern history against its ethnic minorities, very tightly controls the flow of information both internally and externally. Until recently, those memories were generally only told by those who had left the country and did not expect to return.
Information on the 8888 Uprising is not so tightly controlled anymore — in fact, the government has built museums and other monuments in its memory. Still, it’s recent enough that tensions still remain.
Many argue that the 8888 Uprising would have been more effective and that the government would have toppled had western governments and the UN not intervened, recognized the military junta as a legitimate government and provided them with aid to retain their power over the people.
But, as the Burmese government often does, they simply delayed foreign ramifications until the international community shifted their focus to another part of the world.
Featured image: Filipino activists hold slogans during a rally outside the Myanmar embassy in Makati, south of Manila, Philippines Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. The group held the demonstration in observance of the 25th anniversary of Myanmar’s pro-democracy uprising which is also referred to as 8888 uprising. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
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