On August 8, 1988 hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Yangon to show their disgust for the oppressive military government that had strangled Myanmar since 1962. Such revolt turned out to be fatal for at least 3,000 of its participants and it would be another two decades before the country semblance of democracy was bestowed on the country. Twenty-five years on, commemorations are taking place to mark the anniversary of that uprising, sanctioned by a non-military government.
The very fact that officially endorsed commemorations are permitted is yet another sign of the traction and credibility of the rapid reforms to governance in Myanmar. Since a nominally civilian government took power in 2010, the international community has engaged with Myanmar— sanctions have been dropped, foreign investment laws established and now used by the likes of Standard Chartered and Unilever. Moreover, political prisoners have been released, the president routinely meets with foreign leaders, and mobile telephony, WiFi connections and a hot property market make Yangon look more like Bangkok than the isolated post-colonial edifice it was just a few years ago.
But these commemorations are also a disturbing reminder of the brutality of the military commanders in dealing with the protesters that day, many of whom now hold senior positions in the current government. The president himself, Thein Sein, was a commander in the Light Infantry Division that was used in the crackdown on the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. It also pulls into focus the apparent lack of accountability and justice for the human rights abuses committed before the country’s opening up.
As positive a story as these reforms are for the country and its people, many believe that the actions of these progressive leaders in their previous roles in the military junta are being too readily buried by the optimism their reformist zeal has engendered. Can we applaud Thein Sein and his agents for taking steps to put back together a country which they played so great a part in dismantling? Particularly given the hallmarks of their worst human rights abuses in the days of the junta seem imprinted on the current sectarian oppression of religious minorities now (most notably the violent persecution of the Rohingya Muslim community). Burma Campaign UK have been forthright in posing this question repeatedly.
Painful as it undoubtedly is for those victims who endured such extraordinary hardships under the regime, a thirst for justice may not be in the interests of Myanmar’s developmental progress. The power of the army and its generals still wraps itself around the country’s administrative and political makeup; demanding justice for previous abuses might come at the expense of further reform if the government retreats to the defensive as a result. The oppressive grip of the Junta has not long been unclasped and risking the progress made thus far by pushing too hard for retribution might see that grip resume its position around the throat of an emerging democracy.