Socialist Worker

Tragic divisions behind Burmese movement’s defeat

Twenty years since democracy protests shook Burma, repression continues, writes Charlotte Bence

Issue No. 2120

Twenty years ago this month the Burmese army crushed a nationwide democracy movement that had grown out of increasing dissatisfaction with military rule and economic mismanagement.

The movement began to gather momentum in March 1988 after the riot police were called to deal with student protests.

They met these protests with unprecedented brutality. Female students were beaten and raped and 41 young people suffocated inside a police van they had been stuffed into on the way to jail. One student was shot dead.

The authorities closed all universities in the capital Rangoon and ordered the students to go home. But this did not stop the protests.

Small demonstrations against the state began to spread throughout towns and cities in supposedly government-controlled areas.

Overwhelming popular support for the protests in Rangoon indicated widespread dissatisfaction.

The military leader General Ne Win called a special party congress for 23 July. He resigned from the leadership at the meeting and admitted government failings, but warned that “those who create disturbances will not get off lightly”.

A few days later the national assembly chose Sein Lwin as president.

No move could have been better calculated to enrage the students – Sein Lwin had been commander of the riot police in March and was therefore directly responsible for repressing their protests.

In spite of Ne Win’s parting threat, demonstrations spread. Independent newspapers and political posters were openly distributed and the government rapidly lost control of the streets.

Martial law was declared in Rangoon on 3 August, but this did not stop pent up economic and political frustrations exploding.

On 8 August up to one million people took to the streets of Rangoon calling for elections and economic reforms.

Two days later, army units arrived in the city and began shooting unarmed civilians.

It still isn’t known how many people died in the uprising, but independent sources estimate that as many as 3,000 peaceful demonstrators were gunned down.

Government authority then effectively collapsed. People took much of the daily order of towns and cities into their own hands.

The government was forced to offer a wide range of conciliatory gestures, such as the lifting of martial law and the promise of a referendum on multi-party elections.

But protests continued. Opposition groups proliferated and student organisations were reconstituted.

Civil servants, professional staff, monks and even some junior members of the military joined the demonstrations.

Both the Communist Party of Burma and the ethnic rebel groups demanded the government step down, with the former using its underground network to try to shape the protests.

The country was overwhelmed by a mood of exuberance and hope for democratic change. But it was not to be.

The state was perilously weak. The opposition groups could have united to overthrow military rule and establish their own government.

But they were divided around key issues – such as whether to cooperate with the junta and form a transitional power sharing coalition, or whether to topple it outright.

And although the democracy movements had charismatic and influential figures at their heads, those figures tended to lead people in different directions.

The working class could have made a revolution – but the lack of a revolutionary party to guide the working class was fatal.

On 18 September 1988 the army forcibly retook control of the streets.

Army chief General Saw Maung declared martial law and created the State Law and Order Restoration Council to run the country.

The cabinet was comprised of military officers on active duty with the exception of the minister for health.

Twenty years later, the renamed State Peace and Development Council still rules Burma.

The junta has not delivered the free and fair elections it promised and continues to restrict fundamental rights and violently suppress dissent.

Over 2,000 political prisoners still occupy Burma’s jails and thousands more live in exile as to go home is to risk arrest.

They should not have to wait another 20 years for the freedoms they demanded in 1988.

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Tue 23 Sep 2008, 18:04 BST
Issue No. 2120
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