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Activists call for accountability, apology on 25th anniversary of 8888

Commemoration event draws thousands amid spirit of unity and reconciliation

Activists call for accountability, apology on 25th anniversary of 8888

Min Ko Naing (lower right) speaks at the 25th anniversary commemoration of the 8888 democracy uprising at the Myanmar Convention Center in Yangon

John Zaw, Thomas Toe and Daniel Wynn, Yangon

August 7, 2013

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Former student activists on Tuesday called for unity and a spirit of reconciliation during the opening of commemoration ceremonies to mark the 25th anniversary of a bloody democracy uprising, during which thousands of protesters were gunned down by the Myanmar military.

Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and former political prisoner, said people are now able to see definite changes after their 25-year struggle, during the opening ceremony of the commemoration, organized by the group and held at the Myanmar Convention Center in Yangon.

“We can forgive the past but we can’t forget. As we are in the state of reconciliation, we must not keep hatred and seek revenge,” said Min Ko Naing, an activist leader in 1988 who was jailed twice by the former military regime and served 15 years of a 20-year sentence, while enduring severe torture during his detention.

He paid tribute to the estimated 3,000 people who were killed during the 1988 democracy uprising and those who died in subsequent decades by calling on the packed convention hall for a minute’s silence.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Yangon and other cities on Aug 8, 1988, to demand an end to decades of military rule and a shift to democracy. The military junta crushed the uprising by firing on protesters.

Among the thousands who gathered for the event, which runs until Thursday (Aug 8), were monks, political party and ethnic organization members, formerly exiled activists, diplomats and members of the public.

Several attendees acknowledged that such a gathering would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

Outside the convention hall, a large tent housed an exhibition that included photographs and video clips of the killing of protesters in 1988, along with artwork depicting the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military.

Amid the calls for reconciliation in the country’s slow march towards democracy, some insisted that unity could only come after those involved in the killings took responsibility for their actions, sought forgiveness from the Myanmar people and provided suitable compensation.

Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Thailand-based advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and himself a former political prisoner who spent seven years in jail for his political activities, said many people have paid a high cost for their struggle for democracy.

He told that those who committed atrocities must own up to what they did before forgiveness and true reconciliation would be possible.

“In order to receive forgiveness, someone has to take responsibility for their actions and ask forgiveness. We desire for the truth of the 1988 uprising to be told, but not for revenge – they have to be accountable. We just want the government to admit what they did, but we do not want them put on trial.”

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement released to the media yesterday called for a probe into the 1988 massacre.

“If the government recognizes past atrocities and commits to accountability, the anniversary of 8.8.88 could be a pivotal moment in addressing decades of repressive rule. It could even be the start of a new era if the military and government move from denial to admission and from impunity to justice,” Brad Adams, Asian director at HRW, said in the statement.

Win Maung, the father of Thet Win Aung, who died in Mandalay prison in 2006 while serving a 59-year sentence, agreed with HRW’s call for an investigation.

Win Maung, now 83, said the country could only move forward if the government met the demands of the people for democracy.

“Having a chance to commemorate the 25th anniversary is an encouraging development for our country. But we can’t take it as the victory of the 8888 uprising because the demands of the public haven’t yet been fulfilled and the sufferings of many families like mine have not been addressed yet,” he said.

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