1988 – People Power Uprising in Myanmar
In 1988, a row in a teashop involving university students provided the spark for a mass movement. Myanmar's People Power Uprising brought together students, civil servants and monks to struggle for democracy that reached its peak on August 8 – known as 8-8-88 – as hundreds of thousands of people took part in protests across the country, calling for an end to military rule. 8-8-88 continues to inspire a movement that persists until today.
Myanmar has been dominated by military rule since 1962 when its army staged a coup. Decades of civil war, oppression particularly of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, and government mismanagement brought the country – once the rice bowl for Asia – to ruins.
The protests of 8-8-88 were met with violence as the government ordered troops to fire on peaceful protesters, killing and wounding hundreds. Even so, protests continued for several weeks with demonstrators organizing local administration committees made up of Buddhist monks, students, and community leaders to maintain peace.
On September 18, 1988, however soldiers returned to the streets, killing and wounding many more peaceful protestors. Many student leaders and activists were imprisoned and tortured with others fleeing to the country’s border regions controlled by different ethnic armed opposition groups.
The “88 Generation” student leaders spent many years in prison and became a national symbol of the peaceful struggle for democracy. In the mid-2000s they were released from jail, but were re-arrested in 2007 for their role in the monk-led demonstrations, known as the “Saffron Revolution”. In early 2012, the “88 Generation” leaders were given amnesty by the then military-backed Thein Sein government, and resumed their political activities.
The other national leader that emerged from 1988 is Aung San Suu Kyi. She was put under house arrest for many years. Her non-violent struggle for democracy made her and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), an international icon, attracting the support of international solidarity groups that pushed governments to isolate and boycott the Myanmar government until democracy was restored.
Partly as a result, in 2011 the government started a series of reforms that included the release of political prisoners, relaxation of press censorship and the holding of elections.
The National League for Democracy subsequently won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections. However, disappointed by some of its policies and the top-down leadership style of the NLD, some “88 Generation” members have now formed the “Four Eights Party” to compete in the next 2020 elections.
The democratic revolution is far from over in Myanmar. The military continues to exercise undue power, political reforms are slow and partial, and despite official calls for peace and political dialogue, military operations in ethnic regions continue, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians.