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In Myanmar, a sobering reality takes shape

As 8888 ceremonies die down, the tasks ahead loom large

Daniel Wynn, Yangon

Daniel Wynn, Yangon

Published: August 09, 2013 07:25 AM GMT

Updated: August 08, 2013 09:26 PM GMT

In Myanmar, a sobering reality takes shape

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at a ceremony to mark the 1988 uprising (AFP photo/Soe Than Win)

Twenty-five years ago, hundreds of thousands of Myanmar people from all walks of life and from all corners of the country rose up to demand an end to a quarter century of military rule that closed the country off from the rest of the world and impoverished a once prosperous nation.

Their pleas for freedom were met with a hail of gunfire by the military, and an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives. Thousands more were arrested, tortured and sentenced to lengthy prison terms; the uprising was quashed, and military rule was strengthened.

In subsequent decades, however, the spirit that motivated the student activists of Aug 8, 1988 lived on. Others risked their lives to stand up against a brutal regime, and they paid a similar price.

I was arrested in 1998 for distributing subversive pamphlets and participating in an anti-government protest calling for the end of military dictatorship.

During my seven years behind bars, I was physically and mentally tortured in three different prisons, along with thousands of my fellow prisoners.

Many colleagues and friends died in prison as a result of torture, starvation or lack of medical treatment. Others survived but with severe psychological problems that left them completely incapacitated after their release from prison.

Indeed, general amnesties in the last few years have cleared Myanmar’s prisons of most political detainees, but the effects of years of detention linger on.

And as the country gathered this week for the first public commemoration of the 8888 pro-democracy uprising, held with the approval and limited participation of former military government officials, one could be forgiven for thinking that the demands that drove protesters into the line of fire had been met and the cries of Doh ayei (“It is our task”) that rang through the streets in 1988 had been sufficiently answered.

But the nation remains divided along political, ethnic and religious lines. Political prisoners remain in jails, and activists are still subject to arrest and detention. Former exiles have returned and begun to reintegrate into society, but they cannot yet claim victory.

The excitement and enthusiasm of the 25th anniversary commemoration was undeniable, and the joy of seeing Aung San Suu Kyi address the packed Myanmar Convention Center – filled as it was by former political prisoners, exiled activists and even members of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front – would have made the most jaded observer feel optimistic.

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But at best it is a symbolic gesture on the part of a nervous, nominally civilian government that has yet to acknowledge the brutalities unleashed 25 years ago by well-armed soldiers on unarmed civilians.

The so-called reformist President Thein Sein – a former general under the ruling junta – has spearheaded limited reforms that have had tangible results. Many political prisoners are now out of jail, new laws such as the right to protest have been granted and it is no longer as dangerous as before to discuss politics openly.

Suu Kyi is a member of parliament and the likely front-runner for president in 2015. Many of the international sanctions have been lifted, and Myanmar is opening up to the world from which General Ne Win sought to maintain hermetic isolation.

But has Myanmar become a full-fledged democracy where the rights of all citizens are protected? No. Is the country governed by a constitution ratified with the full participation of all citizens? No. Indeed, debate continues over who actually has the right to be a Myanmar citizen.

And there is yet no end to the decades of civil war in the ethnic states, which still seek some measure of autonomy.

Like many other activists and former political prisoners, I do not seek revenge against those who imprisoned and tortured me. I don’t even expect an apology from the former generals or their acknowledgement of the crimes against humanity that they committed.

Anyone who does is likely to be disappointed, since state-run newspapers, television and radio maintained a complete blackout on reporting of the three-day commemoration of the anniversary.

What I and many others want is for the army to return to its barracks and assume the role for which they were created so many years back by the country’s independence hero, General Aung San: to defend the country and not isolate it; to defend its citizens, not to kill them in the streets; to be guided by a truly civilian administration rather than to browbeat it; and to support a genuine democratic system that serves the interests of all of Myanmar’s diverse citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity or political inclination.

Otherwise, the tragic events of 25 years ago will continue to fester, violence in the ethnic minority states will further disenfranchise whole communities and the great task of a generation of students, activists, monks, shopkeepers, diplomats and farmers and citizens high and low will remain unfulfilled.

The student leaders who spearheaded the uprising in 1988 remain wary.

"We don't have the desire, for now, to make attempts to hold those responsible for the crackdown accountable and bring actions against them because the current political trend is focused on the reconciliation process,” said Ko Ko Gyi, a key figure of the 88 Generation.

This wariness reminds us that the country’s much-lauded democratic reforms have much farther to go if the aspirations of those who sacrificed their lives for freedom are to be anything more than a distant dream.

Daniel Wynn is a former political prisoner and freelance reporter based in Yangon

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