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Government spokesman and newly-appointed Information Minister Ye Htut has rejected allegations that Burmese President Thein Sein played a significant role in the violent dismantling of nationwide protests in 1988.
“The president’s personal background has been widely reported on by various media since he took office,” Ye Htut said. “There is nothing to hide.”
In advance of the 26th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, London-based activist group Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) on Monday urged the public to email the president demanding that he disclose his complete military record and explain his role in the crackdown.
Questions about the president’s role in the incident arose from a cache of US Embassy cables published by anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks, saying that Thein Sein had “distinguished” himself during the brutal crackdown of students and pro-democracy supporters in the 1988 uprising, which resulted in the massacre of countless civilians and has never been independently investigated.
According to the cable, US officials provided a brief biography of Thein Sein and the new prime minister, Soe Win, titled “Tough(er) Guys Move Up in Rangoon”, which said that Thein Sein was serving as a commander of 55th LID in 1988.
“In that capacity, he distinguished himself, as did Soe Win, in the crackdown against the 1988 uprising in support of democracy,” read the cable, signed by then-US Embassy chargé d’affaires Carmen Martinez.
Ye Htut told DVB that President Thein Sein was posted in the remote town of Kale in Sagaing Division and not in Rangoon where the massacre took place.
“Back in 1988, he was serving as the commander of the 89th Infantry Battalion based in Kale. He was neither in Rangoon nor was he posted in the 55th LID, and this is not a secret,” the president’s spokesman explained. “Based on BCUK deliberately spreading this kind of information and claiming it comes from WikiLeaks, you can pretty much judge the level of their dignity and integrity.”
BCUK was quick to respond that the president may have missed the point. “It’s not about where he was, but what he did, or didn’t do. If he publishes his military record we’ll have a better idea,” BCUK director Mark Farmaner told DVB in an email.
“Ye Htut [has] dismissed our media release by saying Thein Sein was in Kale, not Rangoon,” said Farmaner. “We already know that. We have never said he was in Rangoon. The crackdown took place all over Burma over several weeks.”
The 1988 demonstrations began as protests against Burma’s woeful economic situation and the shock devaluation of the currency initiated by then-dictator Ne Win, but quickly grew as anger over wider abuses came to the surface.
A general strike beginning on 8 August 1988 brought massive crowds into the streets of every major city in Burma. Authorities struggled to contain the protests over several days, and were eventually given the order to fire directly at them.
Some have estimated that thousands were killed by Burmese authorities in what is now known popularly as the ‘8888 uprising’, but the true number of casualties is still a mystery.