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Elusive Dreams: Burma, The Generals & The 8888 Uprising

Elusive Dreams: Burma, The Generals & The 8888 Uprising

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Published by Quinn Zimmerman
An essay exploring the historical context, leadership forces, and lasting impact of the Burmese fight for democracy in 1988.
An essay exploring the historical context, leadership forces, and lasting impact of the Burmese fight for democracy in 1988.

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Published by: Quinn Zimmerman on Feb 16, 2013
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Elusive Dreams: Burma, The Generals & The 8888 Uprising
 
An essay exploring the historical context, leadership forces, and lasngimpact of the Burmese ght for democracy in 1988.
 
Quinn Zimmerman
 
Leadership & Society – Fall 2012
 
King’s College London
 
Word Count: 2990 (excluding cover page & bibliography)
 
 
Introducon
 
For the people of Burma, democracy has been an elusive dream, the pursuit of which has cost themdearly. For over y years, Burmese men, women, and children have lived under the thumb of a brutaland incompetent military junta, which has me and again responded to aempts at reform withshocking levels of violence. Unconcerned for the well-being of its own cizens and largely deaf to thecricisms of the internaonal community
1
, the Burmese government has eecvely devastated the stateand its infrastructure since coming to power in 1962. Through corrupon, repression, and ill-designedsocietal restructuring programs, Burma’s leaders brought their country to its knees and kept it there,prong from the suering of millions.
2
 
However, recent developments in Burma (also known as Myanmar) suggest change could be in play. Arelaxing of control by the junta (itself formally “dissolved” in 2011) has resulted in greater freedoms forpolical actors, the press, and opposion leaders, as well as the release of some polical prisoners.
3
 Undoubtedly, the country is sll dominated by the military – recent “democrac” elecons have beendeclared fraudulent by the UN, the internaonal community and prominent pro-democracy advocateswithin Burma itself 
4
– but the chance at meaningful reform seems closer now than perhaps ever before.To risk over-opmism, it isn’t enrely unfounded to suggest that the Burmese people may nally be onthe cusp of beginning to realize their democrac dream. It is a realizaon that has been decades incoming, and the roots of which lie in the events of the past.
 
This essay will explore the most prominent of those events, the so-called “8888 Uprising” of August andSeptember, 1988. Signicant for the fact that it was the rst mass-scale naonal push for reform withinBurma since independence, giving rise to many prominent organizaons and actors sll acve today, theechoes of the 8888 Uprising linger. Indeed, one could argue that changes seen in Burma in the last veyears are very much the “long tail” of that uprising, which occurred nearly a quarter of a century ago.
5
Itsgoals and aims, and the leaders that worked to champion them, are reminiscent of leaders and events intoday’s Burma.
 
Structured in three parts, this essay will rst detail the important events leading up to the 8888 Uprising,the uprising itself, and what came in its immediate aermath. With the historical context made clear, itwill then highlight select examples of the formal and informal leadership actors and forces central to theevent. Finally, it will conclude by connecng what happened in 1988 with the present, making it clearthat, while long past, the 8888 Uprising is sll very relevant in beer understanding events currentlyunfolding within 21
st
century Burma.
 
Part I: The 8888 Uprising – A Historical Overview 
 
The history of the “modern” Burmese state begins with independence from Britain on January 4
th
, 1948.A free and sovereign democrac republic, the Union of Burma was short-lived, succumbing to a
1
MacFarquhar (2010), para. 2
 
2
Maung Kyi (2000), p. 2
 
3
Wintle (2007), p. 369
 
4
BBC News (2010), para. 1
 
5
Fink (2009), p.10
 
 
successful 1962 military coup by General Ne Win, a former interim Prime Minister of the country.
6
 Adopng a socialist agenda and consolidang power through the use of military force, he imposed thedisastrous “Burmese Way to Socialism”, an ill-conceived restructuring of the Burmese state. The resultwas that, as McGowan put it, ‘one of the most prosperous naons in Southeast Asia – a hub of manufacturing and transportaon rich in gems and minerals – became one of Asia’s most isolated andimpoverished states.’
7
Responding to threats on his claim to power with violence, Ne Win wasparcularly unpopular with students, whom he targeted numerous mes in the years leading up to thestudent-sparked societal explosion that became the 8888 Uprising.
 
In September 1987, Ne Win, irraonal and highly supersous, primed the country for rebellion when,allegedly acng on advice from a soothsayer, he reorganized Burmese currency to be divisible by thenumber nine, rendering three common bank notes valueless and oering no compensaon. Roughly80% of the nancial savings held by cizens dissolved overnight.
8
As a result, societal tensions warmedas millions of Burmese struggled to meet their basic needs, nally coming to a boil in a seemingly minorevent in March 1988, when a student was killed by riot police responding to a brawl in a tea shop.Resulng student protests met harsh reprisals by the
Lon Htein
, a parcularly brutal special police wingof the regime, which resulted in the death Phone Maw, one of the protesng students.
9
The 8888Uprising had begun.
 
Subsequent student protests met similarly brutal crackdowns resulng in dozens of deaths unl,unexpectedly, General Ne Win announced his resignaon as leader of the Burma Socialist ProgrammeParty (BSPP), Burma’s governing polical body, in July.
10
His stepping down created opmism among thepeople that change had come, but their hopes turned to outrage when other top junta leaders electedSein Lwin, the head of the
Lon Htein
and so-called “Butcher of Rangoon” for his long history of brutalizing cizens, to lead the country.
11
On August 3
rd
he declared maral law, which resulted inopposion plans for a general strike in Rangoon on August 8
th
. The days leading up to the strike sawstudents mobilizing various facons of Burmese society – monks, teachers, rural farmers – and makingtheir grievances clear by burning cons that were plastered with demonezed bank notes andcontaining egies of both Ne Win and Sein Lwin.
12
 
August 8
th
, 1988 – the date of the general strike - was a seminal moment in modern Burmese history,and where the 8888 Uprising gets its name. On that day, as cizens mobilized around the country in asign of solidarity against the junta, orders were given to both the
Lon Htein
and to army soldiers pulledback to the capital, to open re on the civilian protestors. The death toll was signicant, with esmatesinto the thousands.
13
The streets of Rangoon devolved into chaos unl the government forces werecalled o on August 12
th
and the slaughter ended. In the aermath of the carnage, Sein Lwin alsoresigned, and was replaced by Dr. Maung Maung, a civilian leader loyal to Ne Win, who was sll theprimary power player within the junta.
6
Fink (2009), p. 24
 
7
McGowan (1993), p. 49
 
8
Burma Watcher (1989), p. 174
 
9
Fink (2009), p.46-47
 
10
Ibid., p. 50
 
11
Burma Watcher (1989), p. 176
 
12
Tucker (2001), p. 228
 
13
Fogarty (2008), para. 3
 

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