An ominous but hopeful anniversary

Don’t miss a very fine piece by Lindsay Murdoch in today’s Fairfax papers marking the 25th anniversary of the high point of the Burmese revolution of 1988 – known, from the date, as the 8888 uprising.

Even in an era when dictatorship was much more common than it is now, Burma was one of the worst. Its ruler, General Ne Win, pursued a sort of isolationist socialism that impoverished its people and denied them any political rights. Dissent was brutally suppressed and Burma was cut off from the rest of the world to an extent that is now hard to imagine.

But after 26 years of Ne Win, the military lost control, at least for a time. Hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets: students first (as usual), but then workers, professionals, monks, people from all walks of life. The government’s will seemed to falter; Ne Win resigned as chairman of the ruling party (although he continued to pull the levers behind the scenes) and his successors scrambled to make concessions.

It was one of the first of the “people power” revolutions, with all of its infectious optimism. The model was 1986 in the Philippines, or maybe 1974 in Portugal, but the outcome turned out to be more like 1981 in Poland. The generals regained their nerve, martial law was declared and the uprising was brutally crushed.

The following year in China the same tragedy was played out on a much larger stage.

Now, however, Burma seems to be back on the democratic road. The elections of 2010, although carefully managed by the military, appear to have brought a genuine reformer, Thein Sein, to power. Opposition parties have been legalised, dissidents freed, censorship lifted. Burma has rejoined the international community, and although there are still some major issues to deal with, it will be difficult now for anyone to derail the process.

And so one sign of the new openness is that the events of 1988 can be openly discussed. As Murdoch reports, “a three-day festival-like conference attended by thousands of people in Rangoon … has been openly reflecting on the  bloodshed and debating the future of the country.”

There is as yet no prospect of the former oppressors being called to account (Ne Win himself died in 2002, but many of the other generals are still in positions of influence). Some of the former student leaders are, understandably enough, unhappy about participating in anniversary events alongside those who still have blood on their hands. But Rome wasn’t built in a day: there will be time for that when Burmese democracy has really been established.

For now, at least a start has been made towards reconciliation.

One can only wonder how much longer it will be before an honest examination of events (much less a settling of scores) can take place in China in relation to the uprising of 1989. Perhaps it would help if western governments showed anything like the same disquiet about the Chinese regime as they did with Burma’s generals.

2 thoughts on “An ominous but hopeful anniversary

  1. Not so hopeful Charles. The growing anti Muslim pogrom in Burma will have many wishing for the repression of the old days when minorities not directly fighting the authorities were physically safe.

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  2. Thanks Rais. That’s the main thing I had in mind when I said “there are still some major issues to deal with”, and I certainly don’t want to downplay its seriousness. But I’m convinced that in the long run ethnic minorities will find they get a much better run under democracy than dictatorship, as did Aceh and East Timor with Indonesia.

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