Another Black August

August is the cruelest month. For every person who experienced Burma’s democracy summer of 1988, August will always be remembered as a month of bloodshed and crushed hopes. For it was in August 1988 that literally millions of Burmese from every walk of life joined to demand an end to more than a quarter-century of unenlightened despotism, only to be gunned down in untold numbers throughout the country. Horrifying images crowd the mind of every person who witnessed this deadly massacre: endless gunfire and the relentless advance of soldiers bearing down on unarmed crowds; bullet-riddled corpses in the streets; the innocent faces and blood-stained uniforms of murdered schoolchildren; smoke billowing non-stop for days from the crematoria of city cemeteries. Resurrecting these memories might almost seem to compound this unmitigated cruelty; but properly understood, the impulse to revisit this traumatic episode in Burmese history can be seen as an act of resistance. We offer our own small contribution to the on-going struggle to understand what really happened in August 1988, in an effort to confront and correct willful distortions of history. Establishing the culpability of the perpetrators of the Black August atrocities would, of course, require immeasurably more than the contents of these few pages. But it is not our purpose here to assign blame for these events: Our goal now is simply to add a few more facts to the bulwark of historical research, as a defense against a rising tide of lies that would portray the massive popular uprising of 1988 as merely a series of "disturbances" instigated by hooligans and political opportunists. But if Burma is ever to achieve a genuine reconciliation, the question of who bears responsibility for the innumerable deaths recorded here and elsewhere must one day be answered. History will not be kind to those who turned the once-respected Tatmadaw against the very people it was intended to defend; but the people of Burma could surely forgive, if only they were given a chance to know the whole truth so that they might finally be able to put the past to rest. As the Burmese people, at home or in exile, mark their Black August in silent remembrance or in angry protest, the world is watching for signs of reconciliation, ready to assist in the task of rebuilding the country. A full disclosure of the truth about the past would move Burma much closer to its goal of realizing its tremendous potential as a nation. Without it, Burma will remain a pariah state, deeply divided and incapable of functioning as a member of the world community. It is up to the country’s rulers to decide whether denying the past is worth sacrificing the future.

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8-8-88 Archive
Across Burma many students, workers, artists and even bureaucrats took to the streets to demonstrate against the government in August and September 1988, but not all of them returned home. While several participants fled to the jungles or were sent to prison, others disappeared leaving family members and friends with the pain of unanswered questions about their fate. Government attempts to bury the past have made it all the more difficult to piece together clues as to the whereabouts of many. The bodies of wounded protesters were buried or cremated en masse with no record of their identity. Furthermore, records of the events were suppressed in an attempt to white-wash history. The story behind the list featured on the page illustrates the difficulties of preserving the truth. The lists were written by an unknown medical student serving as an orderly in Rangoon General Hospital from August 7-17. Look at: http://www.irrawaddy.org/research_show.php?art_id=441 A complete transcription of this set of notes, and of another complied in Sagaing by the Rangoon Bar Council, is posted on our website: http://www.irrawaddy.org/research_show.php?art_id=3531. However, the record of the Sagaing massacre is incomplete. Both lists were smuggled out of Burma after the September coup when it became dangerous to have such documents, and are now in the possession of journalist Bertil Lintner, author of Outrage, an exhaustively researched account of the events of 1988. Other similar documents have been lost, destroyed or kept secret for political reasons. Many Burmese have records, but don’t know what to do with them of where to send them. Furthermore, records held by Rangoon-based embassies and foreign media groups have been kept from the public for fear that their release would damage relations with the regime. Announcing an 8-8-88 Archive We have begun an archive to collect information on those killed, wounded or missing from the massacre of 1988. Our intention is to preserve these documents, so that they do not disappear. If you have any relevant information please contact us at comments@irrawaddy.org or by post P.O. Box 242, Chiang Mai University Post Office, Chiang Mai, 50202, Thailand.

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The following Associated Press report on the August 1988 uprising was issued to newspapers worldwide on August 10, 1988
36 Said to Die in Burmese Protests as Troops Battle With Thousands
Thousands of Burmese demonstrated against President Sein Lwin in more than two dozen cities today, and troops opened fire on some of the protesters, killing at least 36 people in Rangoon and another city, officials and diplomats reported. Some diplomats said hundreds might have been killed or wounded in Rangoon, where soldiers fired into crowds with shotguns and other weapons. A United States official in Washington quoted witnesses as saying that protesters marched through the streets of Rangoon carrying bodies of dead colleagues over their heads. The Government-run Rangoon radio said that five people were killed and 55 wounded in the capital and that 31 were dead and 37 wounded in Sagaing in central Burma, where 5,000 people had tried to overrun a police station. It said the casualty count was continuing. Mr. Sein Lwin, a former general, became president and head of the ruling party when U Ne Win stepped down in July after 26 years in power. Students accuse Mr. Sein Lwin of responsibility, while still an army officer, for the ruthless suppression of riots in March. Western diplomats say that those riots, in which more than 100 people are believed to have been killed, were an indication of intense disillusionment in Burma with a military-dominated government that had monopolized power for more than a quarter-century while leading the resource-rich country to economic ruin. Its record on human rights was harshly criticized by Amnesty International and other human-rights organizations.

Curfew Declared in Rangoon
The current demonstrations, which began to spread beyond Rangoon on Monday, are by far the largest show of protest since democracy was ended in this nation by the military coup in 1962 that brought Mr. Ne Win to office. Today, the military authorities imposed an 8 P.M.-to-4 A.M. curfew on Rangoon's 3.5 million people. Martial law was declared in the capital Aug. 3, after a student protest. Unusually detailed reports by the state radio said that security forces were forced to shoot on four occasions today and that they arrested 1,451 ''looters and disturbance makers.'' Whether that figure includes the more than 800 arrests announced earlier was not clear. The radio named 26 towns and cities besides Rangoon where protests occurred, including Mandalay, which is Burma's second-largest city and is near Sagaing, a center of Buddhist learning and meditation. Taunggyi, Pegu, Prome, Tavoy, Mergui and Bassein were among the other cities. The United States official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said reports from Rangoon put today's casualties in ''the hundreds,'' but added: ''It takes days for such information to be sorted out, witnesses interviewed and exact numbers arrived at.''

One diplomat in Rangoon cited ''fairly credible'' reports of more than 100 people killed in confrontations between heavily armed soldiers and crowds of students, yellow-robed Buddhist monks and other protesters. (1)

Foreign Missions Close
A statement issued by the State Department said, ''We deplore the shooting of unarmed demonstrators and believe that nonlethal means should be employed to deal with such demonstrations.'' Several foreign missions, including the American Embassy, closed today, and Burmese consulates in some Asian cities stopped issuing tourist visas. The Rangoon radio said all schools in Burma had been closed for an indefinite period. Universities have been shut since student riots in June. James Cole, a 27-year-old Australian architect who arrived in Bangkok from Rangoon, described the scene today as ''a game of cat and mouse'' in which ''the army was chasing.''

Soldiers Seen at Pagoda
He reported seeing up to 600 soldiers, some with machine guns, at Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the main sites of recent anti-Government protests. Mr. Cole said parts of the city were cordoned off with barricades and roadblocks manned by soldiers. On a drive from Mandalay to Rangoon, the Australian said, he saw six armored cars and up to 20 truckloads of troops heading for the capital. Jim Hanson, a 25-year-old American, said most stores were closed and no buses ran. ''There was a lot of public support for the demonstrators,'' he said. Another tourist said people in some homes cooked food for the protesters. A Western diplomat in Bangkok said, speaking privately: ''This is a tragedy. Our reports say the crowds have been very conciliatory. Things are going from bad to worse.'' Diplomats said most protests in Rangoon have occurred at the Sule Pagoda and Maha Bandoola Square downtown and at the hilltop Shwedagon Pagoda in the northern suburbs. Burmese embassies have tried to screen out journalists applying for tourist visas. The Associated Press has been unable to enter the country and its Rangoon correspondent, U Sein Win, was arrested last month along with several critics of the Government. Travelers from Rangoon in recent days have quoted Burmese as saying Mr. Sein Lwin was the most hated man in the country. Mr. Ne Win had full support from the officer corps, but most analysts believe loyalty to Mr. Sein Lwin is only partial.

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The following report on the August 1988 uprising appeared in The New York Times on August 14, 1988.
Calm Is Reported in Burma, For Now

Rangoon was reportedly returning to normal today after the resignation Friday of the new Burmese leader, U Sein Lwin. Mr. Sein Lwin's resignation was forced by five days of protests in which hundreds of people were shot to death by soldiers.
But in Burma's closed society, where the leadership of the student protesters is as secretive as the oneparty Government, it was unclear to what extent the nation's crisis had been resolved. Mr. Sein Lwin was widely despised for leading the harsh suppression of earlier protests. But his departure was just one of 10 demands circulated by the students who led the demonstrations. Far more difficult to achieve would be the dismantling of the autocratic system of oneparty rule that has turned one of Asia's most richly endowed nations into one of the poorest in the world.

Military May Hold Power
It was not known what political pressures were involved in the removal of Mr. Sein Lwin. But there was speculation that the balance of power was in the hands of the military, the nation's most powerful institution, or back in the hands of Mr. Sein Lwin's predecessor, U Ne Win, who stepped down on July 23 after 26 years as leader. The National Assembly is scheduled to meet next Friday, presumably to name a successor to Mr. Sein Lwin, who was named the chairman of the Burma Socialist Program Party on July 26 and the nation's President a day later. He resigned both posts yesterday. The legislature is also expected to take up some of the substantive issues that have turned much of the population against the Government. One Western diplomat, reached by telephone in Rangoon, saw the removal of Mr. Sein Lwin as a positive sign for change, indicating an unspoken agreement between the Government and the people challenging it that the time had come for new direction. ''It is my gut feeling that we are seeing Burma on the verge of a new era and that the next few years will be a transitional period,'' he said. ''It won't change overnight, but I think the conditions are now being created for the type of changes people are calling for.''

'Instability and Uncertainty'
The next few years ''could be a period of some instability and uncertainty as the country gropes toward the future,'' the diplomat said. ''But I think we are seeing the beginning of an era in which Burma finally embarks on that process of development that is already under way in so much of Asia.'' Accounts by witnesses of the Burmese crisis have declined since midweek, when the Government ceased issuing tourist visas. Since the turmoil began, Burma has become particularly vigilant in barring the entry of foreign journalists, who have in the past entered the country as tourists. Tourists arriving in Bangkok from Burma said the people who joined in the protests this week were jubilant. But it was not known how the protesters might direct their new-found political power. The Government said 95 people were killed this week in the unrest, although reliable but unofficial reports have put the death toll in the hundreds. The Government-owned radio station reported tonight that makeshift roadblocks directed against

patrolling soldiers were being dismantled, and tourists returning from the capital said they had seen troops leaving the city center in trucks.

Violence Said to Ebb
The official radio said there was no violence today in Rangoon apart from an attempt to burn a local Government office. In Pegu, 45 miles to the northeast, where some of the most intense confrontations were reported, the radio said strikers were dispersing at the request of Buddhist monks. It said buses were running again and shops were reopening after five days of street demonstrations in which masked soldiers repeatedly opened fire on unarmed protesters in cities around the country. The arriving tourists said prices had soared and shops were crowded with people whose food supplies had run low during the disturbances. But despite the return of normal city life, there were reports that protesters were circulating leaflets calling for further demonstrations. Beyond the removal of Mr. Sein Lwin, the students demanded an end to martial law, which was imposed at the start of the month; the freeing of jailed opposition figures and student leaders, and the payment of compensation to those killed or injured in the protests. More fundamentally, they called for a reduction in the cost of living—''easier said than done,'' as one diplomat put it—and for the holding of a referendum on one-party rule.

Referendum Plan Rebuffed
Such a referendum was proposed by Mr. Ne Win when he resigned, but in what appeared to be one of his few political defeats, the proposal was rejected by his hand-picked National Assembly, whose members owe their power to the one-party system. The students also called for direct discussions of their demands, a step that would acknowledge their standing as political players. Historically, students have been in the lead in Burmese protest movements, including a 1938 uprising that spurred the end of British colonial rule. Mr. Sein Lwin, despite his reputation as a hard-line follower of Mr. Ne Win, took the first steps to open Burma's centralized economy when he took power at the end of July. It appeared that many in Government shared the sentiment of the protesters that broad changes were needed in Burma's economic system.

Deep-rooted Corruption
But with power firmly in the hands of the military and a small Government elite, most of them current or former military men, and with deep-rooted corruption that contributed to the nation's poverty, a move toward a more open form of government seemed an unlikely turn of events. Along with the students and their broad support among the people, the Government also faced the opposition of the clergy in this strongly Buddhist nation. Monks took part in this week's demonstrations, sometimes in leading roles, and their influence will be difficult for the Government to ignore. One other influence is pressure from Japan, the country's largest aid donor, which called today for economic reforms to restore stability. There have been reports, which Japanese officials have refused to confirm, that Tokyo, which supplies almost 80 percent of all loans and grants to Burma, was instrumental in persuading Mr. Ne Win and Mr. Sein Lwin that economic changes were needed.

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