(Commentary) – The greatest mass movement in the history of Burma began when the entire nation stood together as one heartbeat on the morning of August 8, 1988.
People demanded political change. They were angry at the military dictators, but they showed no hatred toward one another. There was an enormous hope that finally the people had regained their political power, but that hope only lasted until the soldiers began shooting.
At the end, the army took back political power and claimed that first Burma needed a roadmap for democracy and a constitution, drawn up by the military. One of the ‘88 student leaders, Ko Ko Gyi, said in 2007 that an army-backed constitution would enshrine the military totalitarianism once again and would leave the future generations with no other option but a path of violence, and that the people would not hope nor expect a transition to democracy overnight.
While promises made to the people have been broken and their trust betrayed many times before, the people continued to look for a peaceful political solution between the army, the ethnic nationalities, and the democracy leaders.
After the final release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the student leaders from prison, Burma observers were beginning to wonder if the Burmese Spring had indeed arrived. But no sooner than Suu Kyi was welcomed home from her foreign tour by adoring crowds at home, the Burmese military embarked on a devastating campaign in Arakan State with widespread human rights abuses, according to Human Rights Watch. Also, Aung San Suu Kyi stood accused of not championing the rights of persecuted Rohingyas, and President U Thein Sein was personally held responsible for a plan to drive out the Rohingyas from Burma When a few monks and some democracy activists began supporting the anti-Rohingya movement and expressed anger at humanitarian organizations, Burma had sunk to a new low.
According to Burma-expert Bertil Lintner, historically there was no evidence of friction between Arakan and the ancestors of Rohingyas in the early days. But as in other ethnic areas, centuries of harmony between Muslims and Arakan was disrupted by the Second World War. The Buddhists, encouraged by the Japanese occupying army, carried out acts of violence against the Muslims to punish them for their loyalty to the British.
But, unlike the past conflicts, the latest rioting has doubly victimized both Arakan and Rohingyas. The dramatic fall of Burma from a prosperous nation to a state of extreme poverty has transformed both communities from a languid, tolerant and leisure-loving people. Taking advantage of the volatility on the border, the army and security forces may have seen a change to diminish the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi and to reinforce its role as the sole protector of the nation, the power behind the scene.
According to HRW, at the heart of Arakan conflict is the military government’s 1982 anti-immigrant provision, which has its origin in anti-foreigner sentiment and ultra-nationalism whipped up during the 1930s in Rangoon, as economic depression began to take a toll on Burmese workers.
However, even more troubling is the resemblance between the new Constitution and the colonial era legislation that strives to preserve the sovereignty of the ruler, the army, instead of the ruled, the people of Burma. Accordingly, under the new Constitution, Burma has gone from a foreign colony to a colony of the Burmese military. For the armed ethnic organizations, this lopsided Constitution is a major roadblock to establishing a permanent peace in Burma.
While the government in Naypyitaw arranges for the much publicized meetings between rebels and negotiators, the real power behind the scene, the army, remains firmly in control. In this political drama, Rohingyas may serve as the harbinger, a canary in the coal mine, foretelling what may await the Arakans and other minorities in Burma. They only have to look around as Kachin and Shan states are still under siege.
Prejudice is not only skin deep or simply a moral issue. When Martin Luther King famously said that we should not judge a person by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, the real cost of ignorance and prejudice was not truly apparent yet.
But, when Americans elected Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, son of a Muslim from Africa, in the middle of a war with extremist Islamists in 2008, an Egyptian commentator claimed that Americans had just won the war on terror. When Aung San Suu Kyi received her enthusiastic welcome in England, Britain also celebrated the Member of British Parliament, Rushanara Ali, a Bengali, who was born in Bangladesh and immigrated to London at the age of seven.
But in Burma, instead of treating people as valuable assets, the Burmese military continues to condemn them to a life of hell. The exploding Rohingya population is the direct result of lifelong neglect. The ongoing war in Kachin State has also revealed the dirty secret of the government’s child soldiers, who were forced into the killing fields at a young age.
While students in Burma were regularly imprisoned for their part in protest movements, their contemporaries in the US, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zukerberg were able to use the best of their knowledge and rose to the top of the large corporations. Steve Jobs was an unwed son of an Arab man from Syria. As the US continues to soar on the wings of these talented men, Burma continues to decline under the weight of wasted youth and ignorant prejudices.
Rebelling against such an outdated system, the 1988 mass movement was intended to rewrite Burmese history. The ‘88 student leaders including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Ko Htay Kywe, Ko Pyone Cho, Ko Mya Aye, and Ko Moe Thee Zun are more like comrades than competitors, and their willingness to make individual sacrifices to promote national solidarity has contributed heavily to the political cause in Burma.
Min Ko Naing said that if everyone wakes up not to fear, but to the call of justice and equality, nothing can stand in the way of Burma rewriting its history.
President Thein Sein also said that even members of the same family can be very different and that such differences should not cause the disintegration of Burma.
On August 26, 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi looked out and said she saw an ocean of people. Among the faces, there were some who were different, but she saw no hatred or bitterness, only optimism and camaraderie.
In the end, even if there are irreconcilable differences among Burma’s great diverse population, if people can remember that single moment of 8/8/88 when Burma overcame fear and answered the call to democracy, freedom and justice, then there is still hope.