On a Saturday afternoon in September 1987, Ba Htoo Maung walked the short distance from his university housing to a restaurant in northern Yangon, then known as Rangoon. As he was ordering his lunch, an announcement came over the government-run radio declaring that three banknotes—25, 35 and 75 kyats—would be demonetised, effective immediately. In a country that was already undergoing economic turmoil, three-quarters of the currency was instantly wiped out.

“I looked down and I couldn’t believe it,” Ba Htoo Maung recalls more than 30 years later. “I had three 35 kyat banknotes, then suddenly I had nothing.”

This devastating decision was made by the military general Ne Win, the strongman who had ruled the country then known as Burma since launching a coup in 1962.  After taking power, Ne Win had immediately introduced his Burmese Way to Socialism—a superstitious, xenophobic approach that saw the country go from one of the richest in Southeast Asia to one of the poorest in just a few years.

“I knew that since Ne Win had ruled the country the people had become poorer, but the officials got rich”

“I knew nothing about politics, but I knew socialism was not good,” says Ba Htoo Maung, who at the time was a student at Rangoon University. “I knew that since Ne Win had ruled the country the people had become poorer, but the officials got rich.”

That evening Ba Htoo Maung and a handful of fellow students organised a small protest, marching the short distance from their lodgings to the main Rangoon University campus on Pyay Road, the city’s main thoroughfare. It was perhaps the first demonstration of a series of protests that swept across the country the following year, which saw thousands killed and a new pro-democracy movement formed.

“That small protest created the virus inside of me. I was biding my time for another spark,” he says with a cheeky laugh.

A growing movement  

That spark would come the following March following a seemingly innocuous argument at a tea shop in Rangoon’s Insein Township.

A fight had broken out between three students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) and some members of the local community. After the fight, one of the members of public was arrested, then quickly released.

The next day, students at the nearby RIT campus learned that this individual was the son of a senior member of Ne Win’s hated regime, and held a protest. Keen to quell dissent, Burma’s brutal riot police cracked down heavily, shooting into the crowd and killing at least one student.

Protests—led mainly by students from RIT and Rangoon University—continued over the next few days, then spread throughout the country over the next few months.

“If the army shoots, it hits—there is no firing into the air to scare”

To the surprise of many, Ne Win stood down on 23 July 1988, admitting that those taking part in the protests lacked “confidence in the government and the party leading the government.”

But Ne Win’s resignation came with a clear threat. Towards the end of his speech, which was broadcast live on national radio and television, he warned: “If the army shoots, it hits—there is no firing into the air to scare.”

Any hope of meaningful change was dispelled a few days later when Ne Win announced his replacement as Sein Lwin, a man so brutal he earned the moniker “the Butcher of Rangoon”. In his book Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy, which focuses on the 1988 protests, journalist Bertil Lintner wrote that Sein Lwin was “probably the most hated man in Burma” at the time.

8 August and beyond

Up till that point, protests had largely been led by students, but a nationwide protest began at 8am on 8 August 1988—a time considered to be particularly auspicious. People from across the country and all walks of life joined the demonstration, including government employees and Buddhist monks.

“8 August was a huge turning point in that movement,” says Ba Htoo Maung. “Before that we didn’t know if what we were trying to achieve could be achieved.”

Thousands descended on Rangoon, the then-capital, and marched towards Sule Pagoda in the heart of the city. “I stood on the roof of a bus and looked behind me; I couldn’t see the end of the procession. There were people everywhere,” Ba Htoo Maung recalls.

The army allowed the protest to continue at first, standing aside idly throughout the day. They finally made a move in the evening, firing into the huge crowd at Sule Pagoda. The number of people killed remains unknown till today.

Heavy crackdowns continued around the country in the following days; although protests continued, they never reached the heights of 8 August again. Sein Lwin relented to public pressure on 12 August and resigned, replaced by Ne Win’s biographer Maung Maung.

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Throughout the protests, leaders had been holding aloft portraits of Bogyoke Aung San, the country’s independence hero who was gunned down by a political rival in 1947. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, had spent most of her life abroad, but happened to be in the country caring for her ailing mother when the protests began. She was swiftly swept up in the tumult.

On 26 August, tens of thousands gathered at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s holiest site, to hear Aung San Suu Kyi speak. It was in this moment that she emerged as the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, despite criticism that she was married to a foreigner and knew nothing of Burmese politics.

Protests continued over the next few weeks, but on 18 September the military launched a coup “in the interests of the people”. Maung Maung was replaced by Saw Maung, who established a new body known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). A brutal army crackdown brought any lingering protests to a halt, and over the next year and a half the country edged towards an election promised by the military.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), with Aung San Suu Kyi as its leader, was formed to contest the vote, but most of the its leaders were arrested in the build up to the elections. Despite this, the party still won convincingly, taking 392 of the 492 available seats. The military then refused to honour the result, issuing an order saying it needed to take control in order to prevent the break-up of the country.

Myanmar today

Little changed for the people of Myanmar over the next few years, and the country continued under the control of the military, headed by Than Shwe. In May 2008, 20 years after the protests—and a year after another anti-government uprising known as the Saffron Revolution which had also been met with state violence—the military pushed through a new constitution in a sham referendum. The vote was held weeks after Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country’s south and saw an estimated 140,000 people killed.

Despite the quick turnaround, official results claimed that 90% of the population had approved the new charter. The 2008 Constitution secured the military’s role in the country’s politics, guaranteeing them a quarter of all parliamentary seats and control of three key ministries. So when the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won a landslide in the 2010 general election, which the NLD boycotted, no one expected change to come any time soon. Even when Aung San Suu Kyi was released a few days after the vote, and Than Shwe announced he would be replaced by a general named Thein Sein, only the most optimistic of observers thought there was any real change on the horizon.

Constitutionally barred from becoming president, Aung San Suu Kyi effectively rules the country today as State Counsellor

It’s not entirely clear how much of a back seat Than Shwe took during the first few years of USDP rule, but changes did start happening. Thousands of political prisoners were released, economic reforms were introduced, and the NLD was allowed to register as a political party. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party entered Parliament for the first time following a 2012 by-election, and swept the polls in the 2015 general election, coming to power a year later.

Constitutionally barred from becoming president—because her two sons and late husband are British citizens—Aung San Suu Kyi effectively rules the country today as State Counsellor, a clever workaround of the country’s constitution engineered by renowned lawyer Ko Ni, who was gunned down outside Yangon International Airport in January 2017. Those accused of plotting the gruesome murder, carried out in broad daylight as Ko Ni held his infant grandchild, remain on trial. They include former members of the Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw.

Constitution challenges

Although Aung San Suu Kyi is seen as the country’s leader and her party holds an absolute majority of seats, the military continues to play an important role in Myanmar’s politics. Most notably, it remains in control of defence, which oversees the country’s police and military, the latter which has been accused of brutality towards the country’s ethnic minorities, most notably the Rohingya in Rakhine State.

Last week, events were held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the protest that’s today remembered as 8-8-88, including inside the Yangon University campus, the leafy compound that played such a huge role in the movement.

A supporter of the 1988 student uprising against military rule wears badges and other items depicting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her father Aung San at the 30th anniversary commemorative event at Yangon University. Credit: Steve Tickner

“The political situation is better today, but we have many steps to move forward,” says Kyaw Soe Win, a former political prisoner, speaking at the university. “The main thing is that we need to amend, or abolish the Constitution, and make a new Constitution; one that supports development and peace.”

Despite the military’s continued role, there have been questions about the NLD’s capacity. Under their leadership, the economy has struggled, and there are still political prisoners in the country’s jails. Press freedom remains an issue too; at least seven journalists have been arrested under NLD rule, most notably the two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who remain on trial for their coverage of the crisis in Rakhine State.

Some of the most prominent figures from the 8-8-88 protests have also failed to speak up on behalf of the Rohingya, a largely stateless population who have suffered oppression at the hands of the state for decades.

After the crisis broke out in Rakhine State in 2012, Ko Ko Gyi, who emerged as one of the student leaders of the 1988 movement, blamed the crisis on “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” and “mischievous provocation of some members of the international community”.

“Genetically, culturally and linguistically Rohingya is not absolutely related to any ethnicity in Myanmar,” he said in comments carried in local outlet The Irrawaddy.

“Talking about transitional justice is still taboo in our politics… We want acknowledgement, not only for victims but more importantly for the perpetrators”

Since the reforms began in 2011, activists have been calling for some form of transitional justice, either in the form of accountability from those who committed some of the worst crimes when the country was under military rule, or reparations for former political prisoners and their families.

The NLD, though, appears reluctant. After her party won the election, Aung San Suu Kyi said she wouldn’t be calling for “Nuremberg-style” trials, a reference to the hearings that brought Nazi Germans to justice following the Second World War.

“Talking about transitional justice is still taboo in our politics,” says Letyar Tun, who spent more than a decade in jail for his role in the pro-democracy movement. “We want acknowledgement, not only for victims but more importantly for the perpetrators. Otherwise they would never get the chance to repent, and future generations will be ignorant about the value of a real sense of justice. Without such values, how can we build a better society?”

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Oliver Slow

Oliver Slow is a Southeast Asia-based journalist.