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Remembering ’88: Voices from the Streets

It is 22 years since the Burmese junta opened fire on thousands of protestors, many of whom were young students, marching in the streets of Rangoon and across Burma. The protests began on 8 August 1988 and troops opened fire almost immediately, killing up to 6,000 people, while hundreds of key players later arrested will remain in prison until they die.

Instead of transforming Burma from a military state to a democratic society, the protests against 26 years of dictatorial rule preceded a new era of junta dominance. But out of the rubble emerged Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, a potent symbol of opposition to military rule in Burma. And along with her, hundreds of stories of heroism and defiance that began in ‘88 have captivated audiences across the world. Here, we speak to three of those who played key roles in fomenting the 8888 uprising, and who continue to fight for freedom in Burma.

Thiha Yarzar, temporary secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), who spent 18 years in prison:

I was actively involved in protests as a student leader since the Burmese Socialist Programme Party brought about devaluation of currency on 6 September, 1987. On that day, I was part of a group of 21 students that drafted a protest letter against the government’s move. We marched through the Rangoon University and handed over the letter to our chancellor.

The chancellor warned of the outcome of this move and requested us to back off. We further insisted that he take the letter and forward it to General Ne Win [Burma’s then military dictator]. He finally did agree to it. All 21 of us got arrested the next day. We were released on 12 February, 1988 – Burma Union Day.

However, we continued to hold secret meetings and discuss happenings in Burma. During one of these meetings in the run up to the 8888 peoples’ uprising, two students died after being shot at. Military brutality on peaceful student congregations or protests continued over that period of time. It was sad to see so many young colleagues being beaten to death. I was lucky to have escaped with just being arrested twice before the uprising itself.

It was after being released from prison in July 1988 that the movement gained a lot of momentum. I, along with other students, helped stick posters all around Rangoon in public places – on walls, buses, everywhere.

During the 8888 uprising, I was a temporary secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). On 8 August, I led people from Thangangyun township. We marched downtown. Around midnight, there was firing at the Mahabandoola Park gate. There were about 700 to 800 people, mostly students from the [Rangoon] university and high schools. Many 13 to 14 year old students died on the spot. I fled from there to our secret office and met my friends to plan for the next day.

On 9 August, I led people again from Thangangyun township downtown. There was a minibus in the middle of the street. I climbed atop the bus and made a speech. As firing started, I got shot but survived the injury to my knee. My friends pulled me down and put me in the car. I was bleeding. I could see other students dead on the streets. People were fighting the police unarmed. On the contrary, the policemen were heavily armed.

I was taken to an apartment in the city, where three or four doctors took care of me. Until mid-August I was in a room with my friends trying to recover from the injury. By then there were more and more people on the roads, and more firing from the military’s side.

After the coup on 18 September, I fled to Thailand but kept returning to Burma in the following years since I was assigned the job of a messenger by the exiled leaders. I would carry letters from pro-democratic leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi to others hiding in Thailand.

In 1990, leaders from the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) handed me their draft of the constitution to be taken into Burma. Unfortunately I was caught along with those documents on January 13, 1991. After the arrest, they took me to innumerable interrogation centres for three months. After much torture, they put me into military trial. I was sentenced to death on grounds of high treason. After spending 18 years in prison, I was finally released in March 2008.

Khin Ohmar, former student activist, member of All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) and current chair of Network for Democracy and Development (NDD):

My organisation was called the All Burma Students Democratic Movement – in Burmese we call it ‘Makada’.

Basically my organisation was one of the initiators who organised 8888. Before 8888 we were having a final series of wrap up meetings of how to do it, like what could be problems. All our experiences were started in March; every single time when we got out on to the street or even on our own university campus there was a harsh, violent crackdown from the authorities. That had been a constant reaction from them since March 1988, so basically we knew because we had called for 8888 already. At that time we did not have good communications like today, no internet or mobile phones, so our reach out to the public was basically word by word, through the people, quietly in a very discreet underground way, and the other way we were able to the larger public was this BBC journalist called Christopher Gunness. So because he was there when we made the plan for the 8888 and he actually met with a group of students from our organisation we were able to get the message out to the larger audience through the BBC, so we were very hopeful because that was the fastest way to reach the public and perhaps the largest audience that we could reach. But basically before 8888 we were all consumed and overwhelmed by having a series of meetings here and there, reaching out and extending our network, because there were so many of us in different groups and organisations but we know this is at a national level that we wanted to do, so we needed to extend our network, coordination and outreach.

So on the seventh, a day before [8888], that was our final wrap up meeting before getting into the action. So we had a meeting, I came back home and unfortunately one of my colleagues from the organisation, he was like a brother to me, from the same neighbourhood went to inform my family that I was going out because he was worried. At that time we already knew that there would be a crackdown – the rumours had already spread that there will be a shooting – so he was very worried for me and many of the male colleagues; worried for their female colleagues; worried about young women on the street at that time. They did not want us to take the risk. So my friend went and told my family and basically what happened was that my family confined me – dragged me into my brother’s apartment and confined me there – it happened in the centre of the city.

So in the centre of the city of Rangoon, I wasn’t able to be on the streets with my colleagues as I planned but at least I was able to see it from that apartment; from about five or six floors up you could see all that happened. My brother’s apartment was quite close to the city hall and the Su Le pagoda. That’s where the meeting point for all of the protests was. So by the morning, when I woke up I was already in this very angry mood…I was so upset and angry, I was crying and trying to get out of the place, but the apartment was completely locked down and everybody was sat watching me. So my only connection with my colleagues was just watching through those streets of what was happening.

In my memory it started at around 10am and I started to see these waves of people, who then started to gather. You started to see smaller groups and then you would see a whole wave of people.

So my memory of that time is that it was so chilling. The thing is that it was so full of energy and full of courage and you also see that there was agony and – you see [on] these people’s faces an expression that is hard to explain, but they were full of agony and anxiety and hope and courage. When I say that it was because this was the first time that people were gathering and coming together to express this 26 years of frustration. And also because the rumour had already spread that there would be a shooting and a violent crack down. You can see that on the faces of the people, where as there is also energy and hope, for their aspirations for freedom, so you can imagine me up there cooped up.

I was there the whole day fighting with my brother and people, but basically I was trying to get my way out of that place but I couldn’t, and then at the same time I know…my mind at that time was like OK I can’t go out anymore and I felt such a guilt because we planned for it together. In this whole process of organising and planning I wanted to be with my friends, and I felt it was so unfair that I was not there with them. But at the same time I wished, when it came down to five or six in the afternoon, I started to feel so much anxiety because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen – will the people be dispersed or will people go back home or stay, because the meeting point for this general strike and the station place was the same, so I wasn’t so sure whether people would stay there or go back or there would be shooting. Then the dark started to come, 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock, then I was like maybe they won’t do the shooting again. And the people chanting had quietened down in a way, even though you hear the people continue to be there at the station points by the city hall. But then I remember by around 10pm or 11pm….behind my brother’s apartment was actually the police station. So then we all heard all these commands….”Go, go, go go!”

Then I got freaked out and from the kitchen window I could see the police station window and the stairway and if you looked through that you could see the side walk of the main road and that’s where there are all the cinemas are leading to the pagoda and city hall. It’s only one block from the city hall and the pagoda. So there I saw all these police men with all these boots running down with their guns and in a few minutes the whole shooting started and I just screamed and I could see their feet and legs. I could hear screaming and crying. Some of these people run back away from the city hall.

A few of my colleagues were injured but none lost their lives. And on the ninth of course it was completely quiet. I had an opportunity to get out – I pretended that I was babysitting my niece – but I just left the baby and ran off. I didn’t know where my friends were but I went to the hospital, and I was reunited with my friends. The general hospital was very close by.

Moe Swe, organizer of the Rangoon protests and current secretary general of Yaung Chi Oo Worker Association migrants rights group:

In 1987 we had the currency demonetarisation, and this was when I finished my final year at RIT. But we had a student network, so in the 1988 uprising our network agreed to hold the demonstration on August 8th. I organised students for the demonstration at Mingalardon township. Of course I was scared about being put in prison, but at the time we saw that we had to do something.

During our university time we studied political science; Burma was then in socialism, so we became interested in politics. But what’s in the books, and what’s real life, is totally different, so we started thinking something is wrong. We began reading political literature – a library had opened near our university so we could study this literature and we started to realise what was wrong. It was revolutionary literature – the biographies of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. In Burma there were many translated books so we started to learn from these. [Castro and Guevara] were the youth, and they were sacrificing their lives for the country. But we didn’t just read foreign literature, we read things from inside Burma. We read work by people like Bhamo Tin Aung [prominent leftwing politician and writer] – he was a former political prisoner and we liked him a lot. This inspired us.

There is still so much oppression by the military government, economic crises and so on – so I think we could see another ‘88’ again, like we saw in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. There will be another way.