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Reflecting on 8.8.88

Thirty years ago today, on August 8, 1988, university students in Burma organized protests against General Ne Win’s totalitarian one-party government, under whose rule Burma became one of the poorest countries in the world. The student-led protests spread from Yangon across the country with hundreds of thousands of people taking part before a bloody crackdown ended the protests. During the crisis, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the unofficial leader of the pro-democracy movement.

The first major national gathering to commemorate the August 8 pro-democracy protests in Burma was on the 25th anniversary in 2013. It was an exciting time, as celebrations such as this were not allowed under previous regimes. Thousands of people packed an auditorium in Yangon and scrambled to sign in at the event so that their names would be documented in the record books. Former political prisoners, student leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and even ethnic leaders, including the Shan leader, Hkun Htun Oo, who was once sentenced to 93 years in jail for his role in questioning the nation’s leadership, all spoke to commemorate the event. Outside, photos and old newspaper coverage of the so-called 8.8.88 uprising were on full display and memorials to those who had given their lives hung proudly as a tribute to their sacrifices. The event celebrated youth activism and honored the students’ courage.

Five years on, is there still optimism about the power of youth and their political will for progress?  How will young voters who were not even alive in 1988 view the progress that Burma has made?

In the last five years, much of Burma has sped forward -- large international development projects are popping up in Yangon and the once empty boulevards and winding alleyways are now snarled in traffic. Five years ago, credit cards could only be used in a few major hotels, cellphones were owned by the elite and there were a handful of political parties. Now, we see a populace infatuated with Facebook, with access to the internet even in rural locations, and nearly 100 political parties registered to contest elections. Most notably, on the 30th anniversary of the 8.8.88 uprising, former opposition leaders and political prisoners are now the elected representatives of the people.

While the former opposition party, the National League for Democracy, now rules with a significant majority, these next few years may bring a more dynamic political environment. Notable leaders of the 88 generation are launching their own political parties to challenge what they see as a weak government and many ethnic based political parties are teaming up to win more seats. The same goes for other national political parties who are putting forth a consistent effort in preparation for the 2020 elections. 

What was not predicted five years ago was that new political freedoms have come with many setbacks. Citizens are now more comfortable publicly expressing their political views, but the government is increasingly prosecuting those who express negative viewpoints of the military or government. Across the country, many are seizing on their new freedoms and engaging in the democratic process digitally, tapping into information which is at their fingertips for the first time. However, with media literacy still being low, many believe the rumors and disinformation they read on social media, leading to serious conflicts and divisions in communities.

Since 2014, IRI has worked with over 12,000 party leaders at the national, state and township levels in every state and region in Burma with support from USAID to help political leaders address some of these challenges. IRI works to support diverse political participation and assists all registered political parties in their efforts to become more democratic, professional and responsive to the needs of all people in Burma. But the road ahead is still long and complicated, a result of decades of stagnation and looking inward.  After all, few people in Burma have direct experience living in a democracy and translating democratic ideals into governance structures, despite years of advocating for democratic change.

At IRI’s Political Party Academy, we share how political parties can analyze their constituencies and be responsive to constituents who want to participate in a more democratic Burma. We discuss how politicians can be responsive to minority issues in their constituencies and how women’s issues can be included in the overall political agenda. Moreover, IRI looks at the demographic wave of young people who will be first-time voters in the 2020 national elections, to help political leaders understand the needs of this new group of voters. Understanding that livelihood issues impact citizens’ experience in any democracy and especially their view of the government’s role in Burma, IRI takes a deeper look at who has access to water, electricity and education, too. Through these programs, IRI works to support the continued democratic transition that was started with the courageous efforts of the students on 8.8.88.

On the 30th anniversary and in the midst of change in the country, it is worth pausing and reflecting on the progress and setbacks Burma has gone through. Today, 8.8, is a day to introduce those five million young people to the core ideals of the pro-democracy movement and the diversity it encompassed across the country. It is also an opportunity to honor those who sacrificed so much for the country in the name of democracy, rule of law and basic human rights for all people in Burma and elsewhere.