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YANGON – By 10 a.m. on August 8, security guards were keeping a close eye on the crowd of people, clammy in the sweltering heat, as they pushed up against the glass doors to the echoey auditorium of the Myanmar Convention Center, waiting to enter.
By early afternoon, there was standing room only inside the hall, with stairs and walkways jammed with around 4,000 people, while perhaps a thousand more watched on a big screen outside the building as Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a famed former student leader, Min Ko Naing, delivered speeches.
Twenty five years on from Myanmar’s worst political violence of the modern era – when the army crushed student-led pro-democracy protests, killing at least 3,000 people – much has changed in the country then known as Burma.
Not only were the ex-students allowed to hold their Silver Jubilee commemoration of that bloody day on August 8, 1988, but even government ministers joined in, listening impassively to Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s best-known former political prisoner, urge changes to the country’s 2008 constitution, which bars her from the presidency. Even five years ago, it would have been unthinkable to have had a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 8888 Uprising, as it commonly known, because the military junta was firmly entrenched in power then.
Ministers even donated to the 88 Generation’s cause, with the government’s peace envoy Aung Min giving one million kyat. Aung Min, a minister in the office of President Thein Sein, is leading the negotiations between Naypyidaw and the many ethnic minority militias that have fought Myanmar’s army on and off for decades.
The speeches were the culmination of three days of events marking 25 years since the uprising, which saw the launch of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career. Back then, when this daughter of Myanmar’s independence leader, Aung San, gave a speech in late August in front of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, the shimmering golden landmark that dominates part of the city’s skyline, she electrified the hundreds of thousands of people gathered that day.
The reaction to her speech this August, however, was more muted, with many in the crowd comparing it unfavourably to that of Min Ko Naing, leader of the 88 Generation and, like Suu Kyi, a long-time political prisoner. Some said the speech sounded like a party statement on behalf of her National League for Democracy (NLD).
While praising the former students for their courage in defying the brutal military regime in charge of Myanmar at that time, Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and presidential hopeful, called for changes to Myanmar’s constitution. She also again criticised what she sees as a slowing pace of reform by the army-backed, but formally civilian, government of President Thein Sein, a former army general.
“There’s no rule of law in this country so far,” she told the gathering.
But overall, the speech didn’t sit right with the occasion, some felt, with one 88 Generation leader – who asked that his name not be used – telling The Irrawaddy, a once-banned news magazine focusing on Myanmar, that it made him think she still sees the now 40-something former protestors as the boys they were back in 1988.
But others saw her as getting to the nub of what is possibly the main hurdle to Myanmar’s still-ongoing transition from military rule to parliamentary democracy – its constitution. The charter mandates that the military hold a veto-wielding 25 per cent of seats in the parliament. It also effectively bans Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, because she was married to a foreigner and her sons hold foreign passports, which disqualifies her under terms of the constitution. Amid calls to amend he constitution, Myanmar’s parliament formed a 109-member committee on July 25 to review the charter, and Thein Sein himself has said he has no quibbles with Suu Kyi as a future president. Still, there is no guarantee that the constitution will be amended in time for the 2015 national elections, which would otherwise be Suu Kyi’s second chance to rule Myanmar. Famously, her first chance was dashed in 1990, when the NLD’s election victory that year was ignored by the military dictatorship, which simply continued to rule the country.
Given the political reforms that are underway today, however, it seems farfetched that today’s military would ignore a NLD win in 2015. Two days after his lavish donation to the 88 Generation, Aung Min was back in Yangon to sign a first national truce with the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), a militia made up of student protestors who decided to fight back when the Myanmar army slaughtered fellow protestors in 1988.
The ABSDF’s scattered rebellion has lasted for a quarter century. Now, it is time to talk, said ABSDF Chairman Than Khe. “This is the political new phase, and the ABSDF understands that this is the new political path,” he told The Edge Review.
All told, there is no denying that Myanmar has undertaken significant reforms since Thein Sein became president in 2011 – Min Ko Naing and the other 88 Generation leaders were freed in January 2012, one of several amnesties of political prisoners – but lately there are signals that all is not well with the country’s transition.
Suu Kyi has been slammed for issuing nuanced words about bouts of anti-Muslim violence that have hit Burma since June last year – the patois of a politician with an eye on the majority Burmam Buddhist vote rather than that of a human rights icon.
Back in Yangon the previous Thursday, Win Tin, a former journalist and long time NLD colleague of Suu Kyi, spoke to The Edge Review, just as the commemoration ceremony was getting underway.
“After 25 years, the People’s Uprising in 1988 is very important for us, especially as all ages of people come to gather to commemorate this,” said the former political prisoner, who famously still wears his blue prison shirt in public as a reminder that Myanmar still holds between 100 and 200 political prisoners, according to activists.
And those numbers, though much-reduced from their peak under the late junta of several thousand, are being added to in recent months, even as President Thein Sein said on a recent visit to France and the U.K. that all political prisoners would be freed by year end, in time for the country to assume the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the first time.
Farmers and activist-supporters incensed at landgrabs around the country have been hit with jail sentences, while, even as the August 8 commemorations were reaching their climax, other 88 era former students were being arrested in downtown Yangon for holding a commemorative march that police said did not have an official permit.