Who could have imagined 25 years ago, at the height of the popular uprising to topple Burma’s hated military regime, that many who participated in that historic event would one day be free to publicly commemorate it as we did on Thursday?
Surrounded by former political prisoners, activists and many friends and colleagues at the Myanmar Convention Centre, I saw many smiles, but also felt rather strange—a feeling that many who were there shared.
“It was surreal,” said Min Zin, a former student leader activist who is now working on his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. Together, we spoke of establishing an archive of records about the thousands who died a quarter of a century ago, many of whom are still only privately mourned by their families but not publicly recognized for their role in the struggle to restore democracy in Burma.
Foreign journalists were also there, including some who covered the massive 1988 demonstrations. One of them was former BBC correspondent Christopher Gunness, who was vilified by the state-run press and even accused of triggering the uprising. He told me he was stunned to see the packed auditorium and the freedom that we now enjoyed.
“It is extremely significant that government ministers and military people came to an event like this, because in all societies that are transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, the first step along the way is truth, is discovering the truth, is telling the truth and acknowledging the truth,” he told me.
This was indeed a significant occasion. Not so long ago, such a gathering would have been unthinkable: The generals who ran the country would have seen red and thrown us all in prison, or, more likely, have prevented it happening in the first place.
But right up until the event was held, there were some who felt it might never come to pass. The chief minister of Rangoon Division objected to the use of the word a yay taw bon, meaning “uprising” or “revolution,” to describe what took place in 1988, and asked for it to be changed. But in the end, the central government in Naypyidaw approved the use of the term, overriding the chief minister’s objections.
Min Ko Naing, who is generally regarded as the leader of the student-led uprising, delivered a speech that gave no hint of vengeful feelings against those who used brutal force against the peaceful protests of 25 years ago. He did, however, speak from the heart about the suffering of those whose lives were torn apart by the crackdown and the ensuing oppression. And he warned that if the changes of the past few years proved not to be genuine, another nationwide uprising was not out of the question.
Min Ko Naing—whose speech in some ways read like a poem—drew hearty applause, even from the high-rollers in the crowd, including some of the country’s most prominent tycoons. After all, he is still the “Conqueror of Kings.” Politicians, ethnic leaders, activists, diplomats and journalists in the crowd were also appreciative.
One foreign reporter, Gwen Robinson, formerly of the Financial Times, said she was impressed by what she heard, especially the fact that Min Ko Naing did not call for retribution against those who imprisoned him and countless others for decades.
After this speech was delivered, Aung San Suu Kyi arrived from Naypyidaw to give one of her own. I wish she had been there to hear what Min Ko Naing had to say.
In her speech, Suu Kyi acknowledged that she was not involved in the 1988 uprising. It was only after the mass killings in August had begun that she appeared on the scene. Initially, she thought she might be able to help defuse the tensions between the students and the Ne Win-led regime by acting as a mediator. But that wasn’t what the people wanted. They were looking for a national leader who could steer the country after the regime was overthrown. As the daughter of independence hero Gen Aung San, she immediately became the one on whom everyone fixed their hopes for a better future.
But from the very beginning, there was a love-hate relationship between her and the students, some of whom accused her of riding the wave of unrest to achieve national prominence. They even criticized her for “stealing” the fighting peacock symbol for the flag of her party, the National League for Democracy.
Despite such hard feelings, however, the former activists who gathered on Thursday wanted her to join them for the anniversary. It was difficult at first to get past her minders, but in the end she agreed to come. If she hadn’t, it would probably have done permanent damage to her political career.
A veteran foreign journalist told me that Suu Kyi stole the show, and I could see the public expectation when she began to speak. But to me, her speech sounded more like a lecture, and was not nearly as heartfelt as Min Ko Naing’s.
Even when she told the packed auditorium, “We have to be grateful to the people for their involvement in the uprising,” I felt like she wanted to avoid saying too much about the events of 1988 and the abuses of the next two decades. Now an MP, she seemed more interested in talking about her party and the Constitution.
Diplomats and journalists at the event told me they believed Suu Kyi missed an opportunity to make a historic speech commemorating the 25th anniversary. They said Min Ko Naing’s speech was full of passion, and many said they believe leaders of the 88 Generation should consider their strategy ahead of the 2015 general election.
After listening to her speech, some prominent leaders of 1988 told me that Suu Kyi failed to recognize the importance of the 88 Generation. “Did she feel that we were a threat to her?” asked one leader who spent several years behind bars as a political prisoner.
These activists were imprisoned because they supported Suu Kyi all along, and I still believe that she and the 88 Generation complemented each other.
But the former student leader said it had been difficult to get in touch with her, even to invite her to the event. He complained, “She still treats us like schoolboys and is condescending.”