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8-8-88

8-8-88

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Published by Ian Carter
The truth about what happened in Burma in August 1988, as reported by a former British Council teacher. The generals are still denying it, all these years later!
The truth about what happened in Burma in August 1988, as reported by a former British Council teacher. The generals are still denying it, all these years later!

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Ian Carter on Jan 21, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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01/21/2011

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Eight, eight, eighty-eight
1
 
“Ready?… OK. Let’s start.”It was 1990 and I was giving my postgraduate class inManchester, most of whom were from overseas, a shortquiz as a warm-up exercise.“Number one. In 1988 thousands of people peacefullydemanding democratic rule were slaughtered by their owngovernment security forces when armoured vehicles andtroops appeared on the streets of the city. In which capitalcity did this happen?”All the students quickly and confidently wrote down theiranswers to this and to the rest of the questions.“Right, let’s check your answers. Number one. Yes,Mohamed?”“Beijing.”“No, sorry. Anyone got a different answer?”Nobody had. The students exchanged indignant glances andstarted muttering.“It must be Beijing!” said one.“I’ve got Beijing too!” said another.“So have I!”I settled the class down and explained. “No, that was almosta year later. The correct answer is: Rangoon.”Several of the students clearly didn’t even know whereRangoon was. It was perhaps an unfair question. Because of the presence of television cameras in Tienanmen Square,the world had been able to see what happened there in1989, but very few people knew anything about the farbloodier events that had taken place in Burma some monthsearlier. Perhaps I would have been equally unaware had Inot been teaching in Burma at the time.It’s possible that Chinese culture had played some part inwhat happened. The Chinese calendar year has twelvemoons, and there is a twelve-year cycle – the year of therat, then of the ox, the tiger and so on, each year carrying acertain prognostication. An extra month is added to eachtwelve-year cycle to make up for lost time, as it were; andthis extra month adds another element to the significance of that twelfth year. For example, every five cycles (i.e., sixtyyears) the year of the horse comes around ‘with fire’, andany girl baby born in one of these years will prove to be of a dangerous disposition and therefore virtuallyunmarriageable. The last time this year came around was in1966, a year in which the birth rate in Taiwan fell by about25% and countless women on the mainland had abortions.To bear a girl was bad enough; the thought of bearing anunmarriageable one was too much.By contrast, 1988 was a year of the dragon. Boy babiesborn in such a year are sure to grow strong in body andmind and be lucky. Moreover, a double eight is the symbolof double happiness. It was hardly surprising, then, that inEast and Southeast Asia many ethnic Chinese womenstrove to bear a son not merely in that year but precisely onthe eighth of August (8-8-88), if necessary by Caesarian.I cannot say how far the events in Burma at that time wereinfluenced by the population’s sizeable ethnic Chineseadmixture – possibly not a great deal, because the Burmesethemselves maintain an enduring faith in numerology.Whatever the case, nationwide unrest started simmering inthe middle of 1988 when I was teaching at the University of Mandalay. Disgusted with the ineptness of General NeWin’s totalitarian regime and the brutality of his so-calledsecurity forces, the population (including me) had nowfound their cash-in-hand wiped out overnight by thedemonetisation of all the higher-value currency notes. ByJuly the student movement in Rangoon was calling for ageneral strike, to begin on 8-8-88. This fact was reported onthe BBC’s Burmese and World services – nobody in Burmatook any notice of the country’s own news broadcasts – andwith eager anticipation people were looking forward to theday when Burma would rise up like a great horse and throwoff the government it had been saddled with for a quarter of a century. During those years the country, once the rice-bowl of the world, had steadily declined. From being one of the richest nations in Southeast Asia it had fallen to thestatus designated by the UN as ‘Least Developed Nation’.The Burmese are what westerners call superstitious, so itwasn’t until the precise auspicious moment, eight minutespast eight on the eighth day of the eighth month, that thedockers in Rangoon downed tools and walked out. As newsof this spread, people began marching in long orderlycolumns towards the city centre in a bid to achievedemocracy and a respect for human rights. By sunset morethan 100,000 people, with university students and monkstaking the lead, had gathered in large groups at variousspots in the city centre. The atmosphere was festive, theeuphoria almost tangible. Then came the Bren-gun carriersand truckloads of armed troops. To this day nobody knowshow many thousands were killed that night; but for daysafter, the demonstrations and killings went on, both in thecapital and upcountry.In Mandalay it took some time for me to piece togetherreliable details of the slaughter in the capital, but I didn’thave to imagine the extent of the demonstrations. Every dayhuge numbers of men, women and children marched pastmy house peacefully and cheerfully between files of Buddhist monks, their chants and placards always makingthe same simple demands for human rights and democracy.In every street it was the same. The atmosphere inMandalay was like that of a carnival; the sudden sense of solidarity was electrifying. People back home in Englandwere just beginning to get interested in the approach of theyear 2000 AD; but the people around me, who had beenyearning for the arrival of 8-8-88 – the wonderful day whenat last they would throw off the harness – were delirious.Not so their government. Every school in the country hadbeen closed by order; all university students had been senthome. The English Department staff room was thereforeoften deserted, though a handful of colleagues were helpingme run an English course for the staff of several otherdepartments, lecturers whose command of English waspoor or at best very rusty. The course was going well, theglorious eighth day passed quietly and so did the next. Buton the tenth only a few listless participants turned up. Theybrought news of a massacre that had occurred the previousday in the town of Sagaing, just a few miles downstreamacross the Irrawaddy river.There was now little point in trying to continue the course.Rumours about the government-planned massacre wererife. The state-controlled press claimed that it had beennecessary to fire into a mob attacking the police station andthat thirty-one had died. This was a very different story

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