RANGOON — When he woke up early on a drizzling Monday morning in August 24 years ago, Sanny, then 21 years old, probably had no idea that the day would end in tragedy. He was in high spirits when he left home at 7:30 to attend a downtown demonstration. He wasn’t worried about a thing—just very excited.
It was August 8, 1988, or “8-8-88” as it’s widely known, when hundreds of thousands of Burmese from all walks of life joined a popular protest in the former capital Rangoon to topple the dictator Ne Win’s single party rule that had oppressed them for 26 years.
“Even today I have no regrets about joining the demonstration at that time. I was doing something I felt I had to do,” said the then third-year physics student at Rangoon University, who later received a long prison sentence for his participation.
Twenty-four years later, the day still stands as an important milestone in modern Burmese history—a day that marked the emergence of a full-fledged democracy movement that managed to topple Ne Win’s regime, only to see a new junta seize power and spend the ensuing decades relentlessly suppressing its leaders, including Burma’s newfound democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.
It was a day of hope, bullets, blood and tears.
Whenever he thinks about that day, the first thing that comes to Sanny’s mind is the huge column of demonstrators shouting anti-Ne Win slogans and the people on both sides of the road who expressed their full support for the protesters.
“The road was packed with people as far as the eye could see. There were countless people lining the sides of the roads, giving us food, drinking water and cigarettes. They said ‘May your cause succeed,’” he recalled.
“It made me cry, and what I learned on that day was that people are always ready to be with you when you stand on their side. With that much popular support, I was convinced that we would easily win,” he added.
But the military crackdown on thousands of protesters at Rangoon City Hall that night proved he was wrong.
Pyone Cho, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group, was among the demonstrators near the City Hall a few minutes before the army opened fire. He was 22 years old at that time, doing his masters degree in geology at Rangoon University.
“Around 11 pm, someone informed us that we were surrounded. The army gave us three warnings to disperse. Then came a sudden blackout and the bullets started to fly in. I was lucky to narrowly escape,” he recounted.
Pandavunsa, 55, has a vivid memory of how bloody the crackdown was.
“When they began shooting, I was in total shock. Then two guys near me fell down. So I grabbed them and started to run for my life,” remembered the Buddhist monk, who took part in the protest as a member of the Rangoon Young Monk’s Organization and was later a leading figure in the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007.
“A few minutes later I stopped to find out that the head of the man I carried away was open. His brains were like smashed tofu. The other one, a monk, had been shot in the stomach. I could see his intestines. He was already dead, too,” he said.
The next morning, an eerie silence descended on the whole of Rangoon and there was no trace of the previous night’s mass killing in front of the City Hall. The number of casualties still remains unknown.
Dr Tin Myo Win, the family doctor of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was a surgeon at that time at Rangoon General Hospital, where he treated many wounded protesters.
Although he also has vivid memories of that day and its aftermath, he said he is reluctant to recount them, lest he reignite public resentment over the crackdown and cause any obstacle to the national reconciliation process that Suu Kyi is now working on. He acknowledges, however, that the 8-8-88 uprising has had an indelible impact on the country.
“Nobody can deny that it brought out leaders and players for today’s Burmese politics. The uprising opened our eyes to the need for national reconciliation and unity, which are the essential forces to complete our mission that originated 24 years ago,” he said.
Pyone Cho said the 88 movement was the mother of all subsequent uprisings, all of which have had only one strong message that still echoes today: People want democratic changes.
“After our repeated demands for change, the government is now doing some reforms. But I have to say, there’s a long road to the change we want. Take the Constitution, for example. If we all take part in the reform process, as we did in 1988, we will win,” said the 46-year-old ex-political prisoner who has spent nearly 20 years behind bars.
For Pandavunsa, Burmese democracy begins with the 88 movement.
“It was the very first time we Burmese collectively fought against the dictatorship. It was the first time we talked about democracy. Anyone in their right mind knows today’s changes are the long awaited results of the 88 uprising,” the monk commented.
Tin Myo Win said it was the “88 spirit”—working for the people’s interests and having comradeship among protesters—that toppled single party rule 24 years ago.
“If we were able to work together even at that time when the doors to change were closed, why can’t we reapply that spirit now, when changes are visible and our goal is in sight?” he said, adding that “the goal is a long way to go.”
Meanwhile, the 24th anniversary of the 8-8-88 uprising has revived Pandavunsa’s memories of that fateful day.
“I still remember the faces of people on that night. Even in their death, I felt hope for change was written on their faces,” said the monk.
“We have sacrificed a lot. I saw comrades die young. I pray for no repetition of that day.”