In the annals of Burmese history, no date is commemorated quite like 8-8-88, the auspicious but ultimately tragic day that irreparably altered the trajectory of a nation.
On that fateful August day, millions of Burmese took to the streets, calling for an end to the oppressive military rule that had gripped the Southeast Asian nation since 1962. The movement had been gaining momentum over the preceding months and reached a fever pitch on the 8th, as university students led a peaceful charge driven by a simple desire: democracy.
In Rangoon, the gathered crowds were united by a spirit of optimism and hope that transcended mere political ideology; the participants were described as “almost in euphoria throughout the day.” Decades of inept military rule had left the people of the resource-rich nation deeply impoverished. Their culminated frustrations were finally finding a release. Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy recalls:
I can clearly remember the exhilaration of knowing that the entire nation was behind us, that we could not possibly lose. But we were wrong.”
As shadows lengthened and the sun descended, protesters remained on the streets en masse. Dismayed military leaders demanded an end to the demonstrations, ordering the crowds to return home. The people answered in united defiance, not by departing, but by singing the national anthem.
Just before midnight, Tatmadaw (military) troops began shooting civilians. For the next four days, streets across Burma ran red with blood.
Ultimately, an estimated 3,000 people were killed by the military. The peoples’ call for freedom had been squelched in a spell of brutality that is solemnly recalled today, the 26th anniversary of the massacre.
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The Burma of today is, in many ways, astonishingly different than the junta-ruled country of decades past. Political reforms took off quickly with the advent of a quasi-(though not democratically elected) civilian government in 2011. Notably, scores of political prisoners have been released (though at least 70 are currently incarcerated and 114 more await trial), official state censorship has been abolished, and Aung San Suu Kyi was not only released from house arrest, but now holds political office.
These are undeniably positive though tenuous steps for the long-entrenched military nation. As Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski said recently, “The freedom they [have] won is fragile and reversible, but it is real and must be fully secured.”
In this context of cautious optimism comes a high-level diplomatic visit from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, an important opportunity for the United States to encourage further reform from President Thein Sein. Reform efforts have begun to lag in what is starting to look like a case of one step forward, two steps back.
Kerry will arrive in the capital Naypyidaw on Saturday August 9th, just a day after what is one of the most significant dates on the Burmese calendar. The auspiciousness of the date of Mr. Kerry’s first-ever visit may not be lost on the Burmese and could serve to amplify his message – remembering one of the bloodiest days in Burmese history, contemplating the progress made since then and, most importantly, toughening up on President Thein Sein to do more.
In keeping with the numerological significance of the eighth of August, here are eight significant dates that Secretary Kerry should keep in mind while engaging with Burmese President Thein Sein. The first is, of course, 8-8-88.
The rest, in chronological order:
2) 10-15-82: Burma Citizenship Law passes
Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law currently denies full citizenship to ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims, rendering them stateless. The Burmese government categorically denies the existence of the Rohingya, who number about 1.3 million and primarily live in the country’s western Rakhine (Arakan) State. As President Thein Sein has said: “[I]n our ethnic history we do not have the term Rohingya,” despite ample evidence that the Rohingya have lived in Burma for centuries.
This law is just one aspect of a systematic discrimination that, when considered in its totality, may indeed rise to the level of genocide. The Rohingya are a vulnerable population that relies on international support to survive, as the horrific effects of the expulsion of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) proved. MSF was recently invited back to Rakhine State because of “international pressure,” which should encourage Secretary Kerry to push for further recognition of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms for the Rohingya when he meets with President Thein Sein.
3) 5-29-08: New Constitution Ratified
The 2008 Constitution, drafted and ratified by the military junta, ensures that the Tatmadaw holds legislative power in the Burmese government. According to Amendment 436, making changes to the Constitution requires more than 75% of parliament’s backing to pass. 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military. An amendment without military support is thus destined to fail.
Aung San Suu Kyi recently wrapped up a raucously successful petition campaign gaining support nationwide to change Amendment 436, gathering about five million signatures. But it may all be for naught: Shwe Mann, Union Solidarity and Development (USDP) chairman and speaker of Parliament, indicated that the petition would not have an impact on the parliamentary committee responsible for recommending constitutional amendments.
Not only does the constitution grant the military a stronghold on Burma’s governance, but it also includes a particular provision (59F) that disqualifies Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President. The article states that the president may not be married or have children who are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi’s late husband and sons are British.
Suu Kyi’s goal of changing Article 59(F) was dealt a crushing blow in June when the Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee voted to keep the provision unaltered, signaling the government’s hesitance to allow truly free and fair elections.
Restructuring the Burmese constitution has long been one of the essential reforms the U.S. has wanted to see Burma undertake. Secretary Kerry can keep that goal on the table by raising the issue in Naypyidaw.
4) 6-9-11: The Kachin Ceasefire Breaks Down
A 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese government broke down in June 2011. Since then, renewed fighting has seen thousands killed and more than 100,000 Kachins displaced.
The process of securing a ceasefire in Kachin State and across all of Burma is something that will ultimately be accomplished by the Burmese themselves; the U.S. can, at best, offer support for establishing a peaceful country, facilitating the process as much as possible. As Ambassador Derek Mitchell has said, “The [Burmese] people have decided they want to own this reform, and I think our job on the outside – the U.S. and others in the region- is to be guarantors of this process, to help them along during this transition.”
The U.S. may not be able to stabilize Burma and create peace, but we can and should take a strong stance condemning the ongoing human rights abuses occurring within the conflict by the Burmese government. Shelling villages, using rape as a weapon of war, and the systematic torture of civilians and KIA soldiers alike are intolerable offenses for which the Burmese government must be held accountable. Building trust is an important aspect of creating peace; the Burmese military’s aggression in Kachin State will not help that pursuit.
5) 3-20-13: Meiktila Massacre
In March 2013, 43 Muslims were murdered in the central Burma town of Meikhtila. Witnesses described how police “stood and watched” as the attacks unfolded. The violent outburst was part of a disturbing rise in nationwide anti-Muslim aggression, spurred in part by the ‘969,’ a dangerous Buddhist nationalist movement. 969’s ringleader is Buddhist monk Ashin Witathu, affectionately known as the “Burmese Bin Laden.”
Wirathu is running a propaganda campaign of terror that plays off the insecurities brought on by newfound freedoms and a looming national election. Meikhtila locals also reported that attackers were brought in from outside towns, indicating the attacks were an orchestrated affair not merely instigated by local actors.
The evidence of state complicity or possible involvement in such violence is chilling. President Obama declared recently “Myanmar won’t succeed if Muslims are oppressed.” Secretary Kerry should reinforce this assertion.
6) 1-20-14: Maungdaw Massacre
At least 48 Rohingya Muslims were killed in the village of Du Char Yar Tan, Maungdaw Township, northern Rakhine State in January of this year; 8 men were killed on January 9th, then 40 men, women and children were killed on January 13, the UN reported.
The Burmese government vehemently denies the mass murder took place. Presidential Spokesman Ye Htut said he “strongly objects” to the UN claims, calling their findings “totally wrong.”
Ye Htut’s statements are, sadly, unsurprising; in fact, they are remarkably consistent with the Burmese government’s Rohingya platform. Longstanding local and state measures, revealed in Fortify Rights’ 2014 Policies of Persecution, aim to make Rohingya life as difficult as possible: restrictions on movement, marriage, religious practice, and a 2 child-limit policy effective for only Rohingya. Along with the 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya are effectively rendered prisoners in their homeland.
The fact that there are two veritable pogroms on this list speaks for itself. The U.S. cannot legitimize the power of a state that openly oppresses large swaths of its population. In May, Congress called on the Burmese government to end the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, and last week more than 70 US lawmakers wrote Mr. Kerry urging him to deliver that message to the Burmese in person. Kerry must take a hard line and tell Thein Sein: change, or our bilateral relations will be severely damaged.
7) 7-10-24: Unity Journalists Sentenced to Ten Years Hard Labor
Last month, four reporters and the CEO of the Unity Weekly Journal were sentenced to ten years in prison with hard labor, charged with revealing state secrets.
The Unity employees had published a report in January detailing a military facility located in the central town of Pauk, allegedly used for the production of chemical weapons. Longstanding rumors of foreign help, possibly from the North Koreans, remain unresolved.
The man behind the Pauk site is General Thein Htay, director of the military’s Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI). He is individually sanctioned on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, specifically for engaging in “the illicit trade of North Korean arms to Burma.”
Secretary Kerry should address both of these concerns in Burma: the alarming backsliding of press freedoms, as well as clarification regarding Burma’s relationship with North Korea.
8) 11-2015: National Elections
In November 2015 Burma is set to hold national elections. Campaigning is already in full swing, with the two leading players being the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). The elections will be a monumentally important litmus test for the state of democracy in Burma. The country has held general elections in the past, but the military either didn’t accept the results (1990) or the elections were decried as fraudulent (2010).
The USDP wants to win, bad. They have all the resources and benefits of incumbency, and want their established power to be recognized and legitimized by their citizenry. But they know that the popularity of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD party will be tough to beat. A Lower House lawmaker, speaking anonymously, surmised the political mood: “It seems that the USDP are scared after it suffered a resounding defeat by the NLD in the  by-election. So it will, by fair means or foul, try to win the coming elections.”
If the 2015 elections are open, free, and fair, and the winners are accepted and allowed to assume power, it will indeed be a watershed moment in Burmese history. But if so-called foul means are utilized and the 2015 elections are a repeat of past rigged contests, it will be yet another setback for Burma. Secretary Kerry should keep in mind that Burma as a democratic state has yet to prove itself.
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Burma’s current ‘transition’ is not guaranteed to have a positive outcome. Necessary changes have been made, but they’re largely inadequate and not permanent. The engines of change are sputtering, and as we have seen, sometimes even the seemingly inevitable can fail, no matter how just the cause or the number of supporters amassed. The will of the people can be denied; it has been before.
On this 26th anniversary of the 8-8-88 massacre, Secretary Kerry should keep in mind the horrors of Burma’s past while maintaining optimism for its future. History must not be forgotten, but neither can hope be ignored. As ’88 rally participant Aung Zaw said:
But perhaps it isn’t necessary to clear away every remnant of the recent past, as we tried to do in 1988. Perhaps as we reclaim the space that was taken away from us and learn again how to speak openly, without fear of our overlords, we can, in the process, dismantle the legacy of military rule.”