Elusive Dreams: Burma, The Generals & The 8888 Uprising

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

Quinn Zimmerman Leadership & Society – Fall 2012 King’s College London

Word Count: 2990 (excluding cover page & bibliography)

Introduction For the people of Burma, democracy has been an elusive dream, the pursuit of which has cost them dearly. For over fifty years, Burmese men, women, and children have lived under the thumb of a brutal and incompetent military junta, which has time and again responded to attempts at reform with shocking levels of violence. Unconcerned for the well-being of its own citizens and largely deaf to the criticisms of the international community1, the Burmese government has effectively devastated the state and its infrastructure since coming to power in 1962. Through corruption, repression, and ill-designed societal restructuring programs, Burma’s leaders brought their country to its knees and kept it there, profiting from the suffering of millions.2 However, recent developments in Burma (also known as Myanmar) suggest change could be in play. A relaxing of control by the junta (itself formally “dissolved” in 2011) has resulted in greater freedoms for political actors, the press, and opposition leaders, as well as the release of some political prisoners.3 Undoubtedly, the country is still dominated by the military – recent “democratic” elections have been declared fraudulent by the UN, the international community and prominent pro-democracy advocates within Burma itself4 – but the chance at meaningful reform seems closer now than perhaps ever before. To risk over-optimism, it isn’t entirely unfounded to suggest that the Burmese people may finally be on the cusp of beginning to realize their democratic dream. It is a realization that has been decades in coming, 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 and September, 1988. Significant for the fact that it was the first mass-scale national push for reform within Burma since independence, giving rise to many prominent organizations and actors still active today, the echoes of the 8888 Uprising linger. Indeed, one could argue that changes seen in Burma in the last five years are very much the “long tail” of that uprising, which occurred nearly a quarter of a century ago.5 Its goals and aims, and the leaders that worked to champion them, are reminiscent of leaders and events in today’s Burma. Structured in three parts, this essay will first detail the important events leading up to the 8888 Uprising, the uprising itself, and what came in its immediate aftermath. With the historical context made clear, it will then highlight select examples of the formal and informal leadership actors and forces central to the event. Finally, it will conclude by connecting what happened in 1988 with the present, making it clear that, while long past, the 8888 Uprising is still very relevant in better understanding events currently unfolding within 21st century Burma.

Part I: The 8888 Uprising – A Historical Overview The history of the “modern” Burmese state begins with independence from Britain on January 4th, 1948. A free and sovereign democratic republic, the Union of Burma was short-lived, succumbing to a

1 2

MacFarquhar (2010), para. 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 Adopting a socialist agenda and consolidating power through the use of military force, he imposed the disastrous “Burmese Way to Socialism”, an ill-conceived restructuring of the Burmese state. The result was that, as McGowan put it, ‘one of the most prosperous nations in Southeast Asia – a hub of manufacturing and transportation rich in gems and minerals – became one of Asia’s most isolated and impoverished states.’7 Responding to threats on his claim to power with violence, Ne Win was particularly unpopular with students, whom he targeted numerous times in the years leading up to the student-sparked societal explosion that became the 8888 Uprising. In September 1987, Ne Win, irrational and highly superstitious, primed the country for rebellion when, allegedly acting on advice from a soothsayer, he reorganized Burmese currency to be divisible by the number nine, rendering three common bank notes valueless and offering no compensation. Roughly 80% of the financial savings held by citizens dissolved overnight.8 As a result, societal tensions warmed as millions of Burmese struggled to meet their basic needs, finally coming to a boil in a seemingly minor event in March 1988, when a student was killed by riot police responding to a brawl in a tea shop. Resulting student protests met harsh reprisals by the Lon Htein, a particularly brutal special police wing of the regime, which resulted in the death Phone Maw, one of the protesting students.9 The 8888 Uprising had begun. Subsequent student protests met similarly brutal crackdowns resulting in dozens of deaths until, unexpectedly, General Ne Win announced his resignation as leader of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), Burma’s governing political body, in July.10 His stepping down created optimism among the people that change had come, but their hopes turned to outrage when other top junta leaders elected Sein Lwin, the head of the Lon Htein and so-called “Butcher of Rangoon” for his long history of brutalizing citizens, to lead the country.11 On August 3rd he declared martial law, which resulted in opposition plans for a general strike in Rangoon on August 8th. The days leading up to the strike saw students mobilizing various factions of Burmese society – monks, teachers, rural farmers – and making their grievances clear by burning coffins that were plastered with demonetized bank notes and containing effigies of both Ne Win and Sein Lwin.12 August 8th, 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 citizens mobilized around the country in a sign of solidarity against the junta, orders were given to both the Lon Htein and to army soldiers pulled back to the capital, to open fire on the civilian protestors. The death toll was significant, with estimates into the thousands.13 The streets of Rangoon devolved into chaos until the government forces were called off on August 12th and the slaughter ended. In the aftermath of the carnage, Sein Lwin also resigned, and was replaced by Dr. Maung Maung, a civilian leader loyal to Ne Win, who was still the primary power player within the junta.

6 7

Fink (2009), p. 24 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

More hesitant to use lethal force than his predecessors, Dr. Maung Maung withdrew the army from Rangoon. However, he continued attempts at undermining the 8888 Uprising by creating a culture of fear, sowing rumors of an impending state collapse into anarchy. These claims were bolstered by the actions of ‘undesirables’ mobilized by the government to conduct petty crime, and, more dangerously, by simultaneous prisons riots (also largely believed to be government instigated) that released tens of thousands of prisoners into the country.14 Despite this, societal cohesion remained relatively stable. By late August, massive demonstrations around the country, involving millions of Burmese, rallied around three new emergent leaders – Generals Aung Gyi and Tin Oo, both of whom had previously fallen out with the regime, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, a national hero considered to be the “father” of modern-day Burma. Giving speeches to hundreds of thousands in the streets of the capital, these leaders served as a focal point for overt and organized political opposition, something new in a country where such opposition was illegal. Together, they formed the National League for Democracy (NLD), which immediately became the most popular political party in the country (and remains so today). However, despite the unprecedented societal mobilization that defined the 8888 Uprising, it was ultimately crushed on September 18th by actors within the military that conducted a coup on Dr. Maung’s government and established a new regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).15 Attempting to distance itself from its predecessor, the SLORC sought to instill pride and national unity in the country, which included conducting such symbolic (but ultimately ineffective) actions as the “Burmanization” of names given during British imperialism. Hence Rangoon became Yangon, and Burma became Myanmar.16 Promising a multi-party election, the new junta (still believed to be largely run by Ne Win) set its date for May 27th, 1990, which was chosen given its relationship to the number nine (2+7 = 9, fourth Sunday of the fifth month [4+5=9]), testament to the continued influence of the former dictator.17 The outcome of the election was predictable: despite the house arrest that left Suu Kyi, who had risen to become the leader of the NLD, unable to participate, her party won a large majority. Surprised at the results, the junta refused to acknowledge them, once again consolidating power through coercion, and ruling the country with little serious opposition for the majority of the next twenty years. In the words of William McGowan, ‘the SLORC is one of the world’s most brutal tyrannies, combining many characteristics of Khmer Rouge rule with the Big Brotherism of George Orwell’s 1984’.18 The Burmese dream remained elusive.

Part II: Leadership in Resistance – Motivations, Actions, Outcomes Understanding the historical significance of the 8888 Uprising involves understanding the leadership processes prior to, during, and after the event. While a deep exploration of those processes is beyond the scope of this essay, given the many nuanced facets of leadership in Burma both then and still now,

14 15

Burma Watcher (1989), p. 178 Fink (2009), p. 58-59 16 Ibid., p. 66 17 Perry (2007), p. 43 18 McGowan (1993), p. 47

some insight into the structures, motivations, tactics and figureheads of Burmese leadership can serve as a meaningful entry point into deeper inquiry. Without question, the most prominent leader to emerge as a result of the 8888 Uprising is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. “The Lady”, as she is affectionately known by her followers, and her commitment to the democratic struggle of her people is well documented, and she is recognized the world over for her work toward peace and reform in Burma. Given her prominence, it is tempting to focus the majority of the discussion about leadership in the 8888 Uprising around her, but to do so would be to do a great injustice to the many lesser or unknown oppositional leaders / groups who, in many ways, are as central to the event as Suu Kyi herself. This essay will highlight two of them: students and monks. The 8888 Uprising was an informal, grassroots event that had its origins in the student culture of Burma, particularly university students in Rangoon. As outlined earlier, the junta viewed students – educated, young, usually single, and thought to have less to lose – as a threat to their rule. The history of military suppression of student activity started the same year the junta took power, when forces under Sein Lwin attacked protesting students, killing many of them and destroying their student union in the so-called “Rangoon University Student Union Massacre” of 1962.19 That act was never forgotten, nor forgiven, creating a recurring pattern of antagonism between students and the regime. This antagonism – the willingness inherent within much of the student population to openly challenge a system that most people in Burmese society dared not so much as question – served as a powerful force of leadership before and during the 8888 Uprising. While other elements of the student movement were undoubtedly important, such as the political, historical and ideological understanding that came from their education and which allowed them to conceptualize the inherent wrongs within the Burmese system in a deeper way, it was their function as “spark” that was most instrumental. Student activists such as Moe Thee Zun (a fake name taken for protection), who intentionally failed exams so as to postpone graduation and remain active in his university’s pro-reform circles, took great personal risk to speak out against the government and begin to create the ripples that would become waves.20 While lacking experience and political savvy (something which would hurt the movement later as it struggled to organize into a cohesive unit), the determination of Zun and students like him to remain defiant in the face of the generals as greater society cowered set an example of courage and ideological conviction that would come to spread as the uprising grew. If students provided conviction and ideological leadership, particularly in the early stages of the 8888 Uprising, they had a powerful moral ally in Burma’s monks, especially as the movement grew. Universally revered throughout the country, and central to many sacred Burmese traditions, such as the giving and receiving of alms (an act valued and participated in by both the opposition and the government, and which was denied junta forces on more than one occasion as a form of protest), the monks were in a unique position to leverage significant societal weight, which, like students, often came at the cost of their own lives.21 The monks were also central in nationalizing a movement that began in Rangoon, as their monasteries were spread throughout the country whereas universities were centralized in the cities. Furthermore, monks, driven by a dedication to their faith and the will to live in accordance with it,

19 20

Burma Watcher (1989), p. 175 Fink (2009), p. 46 21 Wintle (2007), p. 343

proved to be far more resilient and uncompromising than average citizens following the military crackdown that formally ended the 8888 Uprising. Indeed, as Wintle highlights, ‘The junta was not out of the woods yet, however. As August loomed, so did the second anniversary of 8.8.88. Now it was Burma’s monks, and in particular the monks of Mandalay, who took the lead in challenging the regime.’22 Drawing from Buddhist traditions, the majority of Burma’s monks demonstrated peacefully. This had a powerful effect, as orders to retaliate against the monks with force both unified society against their military rulers, and served to create dissention within the ranks of the Burmese army. Some soldiers would rather defect or defy than carry out actions against the monastic order. As Buncombe makes clear, ‘Monks are highly respected in Burma and abusing them risks causing public outrage. Physical suppression of the protests would also be sacrilegious for Burmese soldiers who, like most of the population, are devout Buddhists.’23 Still, while it is important to acknowledge the many informal leaders at work in Burma in 1988, any serious consideration of leadership during the events of that year must acknowledge that without the emergence of a unifying leader, the impact of the event, and its significance today, would be much diminished. So we return, necessarily, to Aung San Suu Kyi, whose role in history seems to be a case of the right person being at the right place at the right time. Living in England but visiting Burma in August 1988 to tend to her ill mother, Suu Kyi was in a natural position to lead: educated, well-spoken and the daughter of a national hero, her eloquence, steadfastness and deep understanding of Burmese traditions and values resonated with the people. Influenced by Ghandi’s practices of non-violence and the teachings of her Theravada Buddhist faith, a central tenant of her leadership was to serve as an example that resistance was possible, and that fear was the true enemy of the Burmese people. About her, McGowan writes, ‘[she] is a powerful force; in a society where timidity and passiveness are the norm, her boldness has tremendous appeal… In one showdown, soldiers were ordered to fire upon her… but she marched on.’24 In her own words, ‘It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.’25 Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, Suu Kyi’s goal of freeing Burma from its fear did not come to pass.

Conclusion: Echoes of the 8888 Was, then, the 8888 Uprising a failure? In the immediate sense, it was, as it did not end military rule and bring about democracy in the country – its primary purpose. Its leaders jailed, exiled or under house arrest, and many of its supporters killed, fled, or imprisoned, resistance was snuffed out under the boot of the military once more. However, when considered through the longer lens of history, the 8888 Uprising may not, in fact, be a failure, because unlike truly failed movements – those that no longer have the ability to influence and initiate action – recent events in Burma make it very clear that the echoes of 1988 are still heard. Indeed, the Saffron Revolution of 2007 – another pro-reform event so named for the color of the robes worn by

22 23

Wintle (2007), p. 343 Buncombe (2007), para. 5 24 McGawon (1993), p. 53 25 Suu Kyi (1990), para. 1

the monks who were central in it, and deemed by some to be ‘Burma’s 9/11’26 – also had an active student faction, The 88 Generation Students Group. During the 2007 uprising, members of the group sought out leaders and participants – students, monks, teachers – who has been involved in the 8888 Uprising27. Aung San Suu Kyi, still the head of the NLD party she helped form during the 8888 Uprising, remains active in Burma today, particularly since her recent release following nearly twenty years of house arrest.28 Now, as she did then, “The Lady” continues to lead and push for the rights of her people. Will Burma realize its elusive dream of democracy? It’s a question that, as of yet, remains unanswered. However, as the 8888 Uprising and the subsequent events it influenced has shown, the spirit of the Burmese people is not broken, and its leaders continue to fight. As of yet still faced with their enemy of over fifty years – the junta, Burma’s ‘scourge of power’ – they nonetheless remain committed to the possibility of change.

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Kingston (2008), p. 41 Fink (2009), p. 103 28 Wintle (2007), p. 369


BBC News (8 November 2010) Western States Dismiss Burma’s Election. Accessed online 15 January, 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11707294> Buncombe, A. (20 September, 2007) Burma’s Angry Monks “Excommunicate” Junta by Refusing Donations, The Independent. Accessed online 15 January, 2013. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/burmas-angry-monks-excommunicate-junta-byrefusing-donations-402906.html> Burma Watcher (1989) Burma in 1988: There Came a Whirlwind, Asian Survey, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 174180 Fink, C. (2009) Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule, 2nd Ed. (London: Zed Books) Fogarty, P. (6 August, 2008) Was Burma’s 1988 Uprising Worth it?, BBC News. Accessed online 15 January, 2013. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7543347.stm> Kingston, J. (2008) Burma’s Despair, Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 3-43 MacFarquhar, N. (21 October, 2010) U.N. Doubts Fairness of Election in Myanmar, The New York Times. Accessed online 15 January, 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/22/world/asia/22nations.html> Maung Kyi (2000) Economic Development of Burma: A Vision and a Strategy (Self Published) McGowan, W. (1993) Burmese Hell, World Policy Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 47-56 Perry, J.P. (2007) Myanmar (Burma) Since 1962: The Failure of Development (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited) Suu Kyi, A. (1990) Freedom From Fear, Transcribed Speech. Accessed online 15 January, 2013. <http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Burma/FreedomFromFearSpeech.html> Tucker, S. (2001) Burma: The Curse of Independence (London: Pluto Press) Wintle, J. (2007) Perfect Hostage: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals (London: Hutchinson)

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