RANGOON—For the last 24 years, making offerings to monks or falling silent in prayer to honor those killed in the historic 1988 popular uprising has been considered taboo in Burma.
However, on the eve of the 24th anniversary of the 8-8-88 democracy demonstration that toppled dictator Ne Win, two government ministers made a surprise visit to the 88 Generation Students group with reformist President Thein Sein’s permission.
The former political prisoners were given one million kyat (US $1,250) as a contribution towards the commemoration ceremony they planned to hold in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city.
Ko Ko Gyi, one of the 88 Generation Students leaders, told The Irrawaddy that their visit can be interpreted as the government now acknowledging the 8-8-88 movement and attempting to spur national reconciliation.
“It’s a positive move from the government,” he said. “Previously, people celebrated in a very low profile for they were afraid of the authorities’ interference. [The ministers’] visit and contribution show they have a better understanding of us.”
Toe Kyaw Hlaing, one of the students who took part in the 1988 uprising in which at least 3,000 peaceful demonstrators were slaughtered, said it was difficult to hold ceremonies in the past as the topic stayed so politically sensitive for the government.
“If you applied for government permission, they never said ‘no,’ but they never issued permission on time,” he explained. “We were also summoned for questioning. Everyone who tried to celebrate felt very jittery.”
But on Wednesday morning, hundreds of mostly middle-aged people gathered at a restaurant in Rangoon to remember the popular uprising they joined more than two decades ago.
“We welcome the government’s participation. Their contribution means they acknowledge the 88 movement,” said Ye Aung, one of the event organizers.z
In his opening address to the ceremony, Tin Oo, a senior leader of the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), said the 88 movement was a “blessing” as it ended Ne Win’s single party rule that had oppressed the Burmese for the previous 26 years.
In a separate event, leaders of the 88 Generation Students organized a commemorative ceremony for the movement they spearheaded as young men.
“The 88 movement not only belongs to us,” said Ko Ko Gyi. “It was a nationwide popular protest. We chose Mandalay to allow our comrades living in areas of Upper Burma easy access to the ceremony.”
Their celebration at a monastery near Maha Mhuni Pagoda attracted nearly 2,000 people including representatives of ethnic minorities, according to those in attendance.
“Min Ko Naing said the ceremony is to honor everyone who took part in the 88 movement and fallen unsung heroes,” said Mandalay resident Thurein, adding that there was also some discussion of the country’s future and the ongoing peace process.
After an initial demonstration by students on Aug. 8, 1988, the uprising spread throughout Burma comprised of around one million people. Thousand were killed before the protests were finally crushed the following month with the junta repealing the Constitution and imposing martial law.
Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi first emerged as the leader of the dissident movement during the protests. Her NLD swept elections held in 1990, but the military refused to honor the result and placed her under house arrest for much of the following two decades.
Back in Rangoon, Win Kyu and his wife were among those remembering the movement that took their 16-year-old daughter away.
Win Maw Oo, the subject of the infamous photograph of a young woman soaked in blood being carried by two doctors, was shot down with other pro-democracy demonstrators by the Burmese military on Sept. 19, 1988.
During her last hours on that day, she pleaded with her father not to share merit with her so her soul would be allowed to remain free until the country enjoyed democracy.
Asked if he was now ready to call for merit to be bestowed upon her soul as the country embarks towards democratic reform, Win Kyu replied “no.” As a parent he feels sad for the loss of his daughter and thinks about her wandering soul but cannot yet make that decision.
“You cannot say democracy is now flourishing in our country,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We still have human rights abuses. You still can’t express your opinion freely. So I simply cannot call her name to bestow merit upon her soul.”
“I’m proud of my daughter for she sacrificed her life for what she believed,” said Win Maw Oo’s mother Khin Htay Win. “I really want to see genuine democratic days in my country as we want to share our merit so she can rest in peace. I don’t want her soul to wander.”