8 August 1988 – the key date in the nationwide democratic uprising that catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence before being brutally crushed by Burma’s military regime, is commemorated with protests around the world every year.
Inside Burma itself however, such demonstrations have long been muted. Publicly remembering the thousands who gave their lives and liberty in an attempt to free their country was until recently, enough to land you in jail.
This week things could not be more different; with the young pseudo-civilian government of President Thein Sein both allowing and financing rallies held by veterans of the uprising and other democrats. The events, which drew thousands of supporters, have generated a sense of optimism that the government may finally be moving towards ‘national reconciliation’ over the massacres.
In some cases commentators have pointed to reports that Thein Sein, as a young army officer during the uprising, released captured protestors rather than arresting them. They hope that he may show similar compassion in his Presidential capacity over the coming months and years.
However all is not well in Burma, and the government’s accommodation of a few commemoration rallies should not be allowed to disguise the fact that twenty-four years on, the human rights and freedoms that people demonstrated and died for are far from being realised.
Perhaps the most obvious symbols of just how incomplete change has been, are the hundreds of political prisons who remain behind bars, many of them facing torture and gross mistreatment. Tellingly the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners stated in July: “As no significant shift in the Government's policy towards political prisoners is in sight, the past month is once again marked by a contrast between an international rush to commend the limited political reforms underway …and the reality of continued human rights violations.”
Meanwhile tens of thousands of the long-persecuted minority Rohingya population are still suffering in the fall-out of brutal communal violence, which evidence from Human Rights Watch indicates was fuelled by the government itself. Those who evaded the murderous mobs and soldiers by escaping across the border into Bangladesh are now facing a dire humanitarian situation as the Bangladeshi government, in a shocking and open violation of international law, obstructs aid agencies from delivering essential medical and food supplies.
In amidst such circumstances it is clear that whilst 8888 can now be commemorated, the goals set by those on the streets all those years ago are still a long way off. Some change has occurred and more may be imminent but the struggle must – and will – go on.