An Unfinished Movement for Democracy and Human Rights

It has been thirty years since the nationwide, society-wide demonstrations in Myanmar[1], often known as 8-8-88, galvanized the movement for freedom, democracy and human rights, becoming a reference point for democracy activism ever since. Many changes have occurred in the past thirty years, most notably the election victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) – the political party that carried the flag of democracy during the many subsequent years of opposition to military rule. But perhaps what is most significant is what has not changed. The military still has a stranglehold on power, human rights are routinely violated by authorities, and most of all, ethnic and religious minorities across the country, especially in ethnic nationality areas, bear the brunt of violence and civil war.

The kindling for the 8-8-88 uprising was the devaluation of the Myanmar Kyat, exacerbating widespread economic discontent, oppression and mismanagement and disillusionment with the ruling regime. An argument in a Yangon teashop and authorities’ subsequent biased reaction and excessive use of force against Rangoon Institute of Technology students in March 1988 was the spark, leading to student-led demonstrations, workers’ strikes, farmers’ revolts, and monks’ protests throughout the country, gaining momentum. The demands were for democracy and human rights, including the overthrow of the military-led Burma Socialist Programme Party. The protests peaked on 8 August, 1988 with a nationwide general strike, as called for by student protesters, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, but were brutally ended by military force, with soldiers opening fire on peaceful protesters, killing thousands. The following month, the military took explicit power as the State Law and Order Restoration Council – which later changed its name to the less-sinister sounding State Peace and Development Council – ruling the country until 2010. One of the outcomes of the 8-8-88 was the rise to political prominence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who became the leader of the political party, the NLD, which was founded in the aftermath of the protests.

Yet the 8-8-88 protests were not about one political party, they were about democracy and equality for all people in Myanmar, including the ethnic and religious minorities who are still suffering at the hands of the Myanmar military and Government today.

Yet the 8-8-88 protests were not about one political party, they were about democracy and equality for all people in Myanmar, including the ethnic and religious minorities who are still suffering at the hands of the Myanmar military and Government today. For many people – especially the Rohingya – 2018 represents a far worse situation than in 1988, where they have been subject to what the UN human rights chief has labelled ‘acts of genocide.’ One of the most striking and inspirational elements of 8-8-88 was how all sectors of society came together regardless of ethnicity, religion, class or social standing. This contrasts with the deep divides in the country today, especially around the plight of the Rohingya and the increase in religious discrimination and the spread of hate speech. There is a poignant photo from 1988 of a group of Rohingya students, participating in the protests side-by-side with their brothers and sisters from other ethnic groups, proudly flying their banner that states the Rohingya student groups’ support for the democracy movement.

However, it is not just Rohingya that are suffering today. In northern Myanmar, the military still launches offensives in ethnic nationality areas, while ethnic minorities still striving to achieve their basic rights. This is demonstrated by the demand on 9 August, 2018 – the International Day of the World Indigenous Peoples – by displaced communities in an internally-displaced persons camp in Karen State for the Myanmar Government to “honor the global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples and a universal framework of minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being.” That they are still calling for this, thirty years later, demonstrates that while the election of the NLD-led Government was lauded in international circles as a success story of Burmese Democracy, the situation for ethnic minorities remains largely unchanged.

“Having a parliament and elections was not our goal. We will have to work hard for a parliament filled entirely with elected members and for a government made up entirely of civilians.”

Min Ko Naing, one of the student leaders from 1988

It is clear that the demands of 8-8-88 have not been met. The military still retains disproportionate power, it abuses people throughout the country with impunity, and equality for all people of Myanmar remains a distant ambition. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD being in power is simply not enough. As one of the student leaders from 1988, Min Ko Naing remarked when commemorating the anniversary, “Having a parliament and elections was not our goal. We will have to work hard for a parliament filled entirely with elected members and for a government made up entirely of civilians.” Much more works needs to be done to fulfill these goals. For that, we must reflect that the strength of 8-8-88 was based on the inclusiveness and equal participation of all peoples from various sectors of society with a unified goal, not based on discrimination, exclusion and marginalization at the expense of vulnerable communities.

____________
[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.


Resources from the past week

actions

Statements and Press Releases

Joint Submission to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights: Civil Society Organisations Request Meaningful Engagement

By 16 Civil Society Organisations

သံလြင္ၿငိမ္းခ်မ္းေရးဥယ်ာဥ္ေကာ္မတီႏွင့္ ကရင္သဘာဝပတ္၀န္းက်င္ႏွင့္လူမႈလုပ္ရွားမႈကြန္ရက္အဖဲြ႕ (KESAN) တို႕၏ထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကညာခ်က္

By Karen Environmental and Social Action Network and Salween Peace Park Committee

Displaced Karen Celebrate International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples along with their Local Solutions and Actions Contributing to Global Conservation Targets and Peace building in Burma/Myanmar

By Karen Environmental and Social Action Network and Salween Peace Park Committee

Legal Analysis of the Press Release Issued by the Office of the State Counsellor in Connection with the Jurisdiction of the ICC for Heinous Crimes Took Place in Rakhine and other Ethnic States

By Legal Aid Network

UNHCR and UNDP Urge Tangible Progress to Improve Conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

By United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

UNHCR’s Grandi appeals to Asia-Pacific ministers, business leaders for solidarity with refugees, people of Myanmar’s Rakhine State

By United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

reports

Reports

ျမန္မာဘာသာ ” ပန္းမန္သစ္ခြစံုလင္လွ…လူမႈဘဝသာယာလွ” အစီရင္ခံစာ အက်ဥ္းခ်ဳပ္

By Karen Environmental and Social Action Network and Salween Peace Park Committee


Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.

Related Posts: