The streets crammed to bursting with protesters. Groups of chanting students snaking through the crowds with improvised banners against the military government.
White-coated delegations from hospitals mingling with engineers in hard hats and many, many thousands of others.
It could be a scene from Myanmar today—or from protests that gripped the South East Asian country in 2007, 1988 and many occasions before. And on each, the illusion that people from all classes had the same interests in opposing the regime was to be its undoing.
The huge wave of demonstrations happening now are again filled with workers’ delegations. They are a chance to break from a past littered with brutal repression and create a new history of revolts.
But grasping the opportunity involves ordinary people looking to their own power, rather than relying onwell-spoken liberals.
The August 1988 protests were dubbed the “8888” by the students who led them. They were sparked by a seemingly small incident a few months earlier—a fight over music in a Yangon tea shop.
The son of a minor government official stabbed a student and the military tried to cover up the killing. But students—already enraged by years of dictatorship and economic stagnation—took to the streets.
General Ne Win, who had led the regime since 1962, sent in riot police to cut the students down. They killed hundreds and arrested thousands.
Eyewitness Bertil Lintner recalled one of many massacres.
“When we had passed a culvert, which we call the ‘White Bridge’, we suddenly halted. A barbed wire fence had been strung across the road in front of us. Beyond it, to our horror, we saw soldiers armed with automatic rifles—which they were aiming at us,” he remembered.
“Then we looked behind us. We were petrified. There were hundreds of Lon Htein [riot police] in steel helmets and armed with clubs, rifles and cane shields… An order rang out and Lon Htein charged the students.
“Clubs swished and bones cracked. There were groans and shrieks as students fell to the ground bleeding… After about an hour, the orgy in violence was over.
“Sprawling corpses lay oozing in pools of blood all over the street. Even the so-called ‘White Bridge’ was now red.”
Instead of quashing the movement, the repression helped spread it to both workers and professionals.
The regime responded by throwing down a gauntlet. In August it appointed General Sein Lwin, who had led the crackdown on students, as the new leader. He quickly declared martial law.
The weeks that followed saw frenzied activity. There were huge protests and a general strike of millions. Sections of the military split from the regime and for a month the generals were absolutely paralysed.
Workers set up neighbourhood committees and in the countryside farmers too joined the protests.
It was increasingly clear that workers and the poor were coupling economic demands for better wages and living conditions to the fight for democracy. For them the two questions were intrinsically linked. Groups of workers and students stormed government buildings and came close to destroying the regime for good.
But as the protest movement reached its height, splits in its ranks began to emerge.
A small but significant layer of middle class professionals that formed the movement’s leadership began to fear the action from below.
They were desperate to be free of the constraints of the regime. But they wanted people like themselves to be in charge of the new Myanmar, not the street fighting and striking rabble from the slums.
These better-off types saw no contradiction in an apparently democratic system that kept the majority in poverty.
In a calculated move Lwin resigned and the regime then appointed a civilian supporter as leader.
This, the army hoped, would enable the “respectable” leadership of the democracy movement to control the more “rowdy” elements.
At this point the previously little-considered figure of Aung San Suu Kyi took centre stage.
To our horror, we saw soldiers armed with automatic rifles—which they were aiming at us
Bertil Lintner, eyewitness at a massacre during the 8888 uprisng
Suu Kyi was the daughter of the assassinated fighter against the British Aung San—accepted by most as “the father of the nation”.
She was Oxford-educated, married to a European and had worked for the United Nations.
Now she was forming an opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), with a group of retired army officers who hated the junta. The NLD accepted the need for protests but wanted to use them to push for parliamentary elections, not radical change.
In her rapid rise to becoming the face of the movement Suu Kyi sought to redirect it away from confrontation and towards conciliation.
At a huge rally in late August she urged the crowd “not to lose their affection for the army” and insisted that demands for democracy could only be achieved by “peaceful means”.
But Suu Kyi’s arrival only bought the regime time to regroup to crush their opposition, including her.
Sensing weakness, the army repaid her with unspeakable violence. Troops returned to Yangon and killed whoever they came across.
They massacred unarmed civilians by the thousands and atrocities included the cremation of protest leaders while they were still alive.
Many of those who escaped, including Suu Kyi, were later thrown in jail or put under house arrest.
The workers’ movement had a brief moment when it held the initiative, but now the moment was lost.
In the years that followed the regime tried to drape itself with democratic credentials. Limited elections were held and certain reforms granted in a bid to win over a largely hostile international opinion.
Rising fuel prices in 2007 led to small street protests, which were eagerly embraced by students.
After regime thugs fired on marchers, Buddhist monks joined the movement. Soon the fuel protests were spreading—and again demanding the fall of the regime.
The monks took the lead in the revived movement and issued a statement calling for mass protests. It read, “We pronounce the evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperizing our people of all walks, including the clergy, as the common enemy of all our citizens.”
This time around, the belief in Suu Kyi and her NLD party was far stronger and workers’ action far more constrained.
There was a widespread feeling that the military would soon give way to democratic rule.
But the revived protest campaign was again repressed by the army and police and soon died down.
The intervention of the US in Myanmar’s politics helped quench the movement.
The Barack Obama administration saw huge strategic advantage in having the country as an ally against its main economic rival China.
Over a period of a few years the regime negotiated a fudge with the NLD.
That saw Suu Kyi released from house arrest, and elections in which the military was guaranteed a large chunk of seats.
The arrangement suited the liberal professional class well.
In the later elections of 2015 the NLD won a landslide victory and Suu Kyi was later declared the country’s prime minister. She quickly made her peace with the army.
The new government and its military sought to redirect the still live class anger over economic issues by instituting a wave of ethnic nationalism.
It brought back the racialised categories instigated under British rule, and used later by the army regime, to declare that some groups were merely “associated citizens” of Myanmar. Others were demonised to a greater degree. Rohingya Muslims from the Rakhine state became a particular target of the Suu Kyi regime.
The army was unleashed to attack them in their towns and villages—and later to crush those who tried to resist the state with arms.
What followed was a campaign of ethnic cleansing that included military rape, murder and torching of homes.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were driven out of Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh and are yet to return.
Today many thousands are again on the streets after the army deposed the Suu Kyi government. It appears that even the meek threat that she posed to military control was too much for them to bear.
The generals fear that her NLD party could open the door to a more radical democracy movement that would finally remove them from the real positions of power.
The lesson of the past three decades must be that workers have the power to overthrow the generals. They can build a democratic society far more radical than Suu Kyi and her acolytes could ever imagine or offer.