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The 8888 Uprising: Thirty Years Later

  Aparupa Bhattacherjee

After 30 years, Myanmar today is headed by a democratically elected government by NLD. Does this mean, the 8888 uprising has been successful? Is Myanmar democratic today? What has been the major achievements and failures of the 8888 uprising?

Aparupa Bhattacherjee is a PhD Scholar at NIAS

On 8 August 2018, Myanmar celebrated 30 years of 8888 uprising, which plays a pivotal role in the history of the democratic struggle of the country.

After 30 years, Myanmar today is headed by a democratically elected government by NLD. Does this mean, the 8888 uprising has been successful? Is Myanmar democratic today? What has been the major achievements and failures of the 8888 uprising?

The 8888 Uprising: A Brief Note

By 1987, Myanmar then Burma, had already witnessed almost 20 years of autocratic military rule under General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party. The demonetisation of smaller currency flared people’s anger; students were the first to raise their voices, which led them to clash head-on with the system. Though the public uprising on 8 August 1988 was culmination of several protests since 1987, it was the most significant. The 8888 uprising witnessed for the first time, the coming together of people from every walks of life, including monks to protest against the government.

There were several outcomes as a result. First, the popular perception about the army witnessed a transformation when the latter crushed the revolt and engaged in indiscriminate killing.  Second, it led to the formation of National League of Democracy (NLD) with Aung San Suu Kyi as general secretary in 1989. Both these outcomes laid the foundation for a regime changes, more importantly, leading towards a strong yearning for a democratic government.

After 30 years: A Post-mortem of the 8888 Uprising

Myanmar today is governed by a democratically elected government. Since 2008, the junta had realised that it was necessary to accept change and had to lose their hold over the country’s governance to a certain extent.

The 2008 decision was an outcome of dreadful fight and protests such as 8888 uprising, 2007 saffron revolution and economic sanctions on Myanmar. Thus 2015, elections and the winning of NLD was celebrated massively. There was an enthusiasm among the masses that there will be a change for betterment and there will be development. The new government led by Suu Kyi under the banner of NLD today is excepted to create magic.

However, in 2018, it seems Suu Kyi not only has failed to create magic but she is lagging behind in bringing the change that was expected out of her. The dreams of the 8888 protestors are far from being fulfilled.

It has been two years since NLD formed its government. Suu Kyi who is restricted under the 2008 constitution to become the head of the government, due to her British husband, became the State Counsellor. This government was expected to live up to its promise of economic development, bigger investment, peaceful resolution of ethnic conflicts, and also establishing the democratic values of governance.

Unfortunately, the government is far away from its promises. In fact, in certain aspects, they have fared worse than the previous USDP government of the army.

Some of these issues are:
Violation of basic Human Rights: The horrific Rohingya crisis, is one issue that has compelled the entire world to question the “democratic” government of Myanmar and especially ‘The lady ‘(Suu Kyi). Although the main perpetrator of the crime is the army, who holds 25 per cent seats of the Parliament, inaction of NLD, have led to sever criticism. The government has blatantly denied any involvement in mass exodus and violence while there is evidence such as satellite pictures of burned villages.  Myanmar denied the UN Human Rights envoy access to the country and rejected the investigation mission on this issue demanded by the UN.

Another issue that seriously curb people’s freedom and rights is the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Act. The amendments have been approved by the Upper House despite severe mass protest against it.
Absence of Press Freedom: Arrest and detaining of reporters and editors of newspapers and magazines have become a common trend in Myanmar. In 2017 four, three from Democratic Voice of Burma and one from the Irrawaddy, and in 2018, two reports from Reuters were detained by the army.

Apart from the detention, there are other ways the government apply to restrict media by laws such as Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. This law bans the use of a telecommunications network to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence and intimidate”.  After the law was enacted in 2013 under USDP government till 2015, in two years 7 cases were registered whereas within 2016 to 2017, under NLD government 56 cases were registered out of which 12 were journalists.

The far-fledged Peace: Suu Kyi was able to create hype about her 21st-century Panglong Peace Conferences, there were hopes that Peace was almost there. Even after two of conferences, the peace seems far fledged. Although several peace talks are initiated and the army has its lukewarm agreement to the idea of federalism, the conflicts are still present. The core problem lies, in the lack of efforts in part of the governments to bridge the prevailing fault lines. For example, recently, many ethnic groups questioned the use of the word ‘Daw’ for official practice as it’s a Burman (the majority ethnic group) way of showing respect. When questioned to Suu Kyi about the same in a meeting, she deemed it necessary. This might be a small but these steps of government are seen by other ethnic groups as ‘Burmanisation’ which widens the gap rather building a bridge.

The NLD government along with their failure to gain respect internationally seems to be failing to woo common Myanmarese. There is still no much of development economically, the investments are still low, job opportunities and education are still stuck in the junta period. NLD before coming to power assured autonomous tag to the universities which are under the state governance, but it is yet to happen. Students protest like back in the 80s, 90s are still common in Myanmar.

With the 2020 votes coming closer, displeased voters would not be good for NLD and Suu Kyi. Although there is a high probability of her win due to lack of option still she and her government should watch her steps. She still has time to fulfil the wishes of her voters and the dream of the 8888 protestors of a democratic Myanmar.


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