30 years on, the fight continues

Thirty years ago, more than a million people took to the streets of Myanmar to demand freedom: freedom from dictatorship and freedom from poverty.

THE DEMONSTRATIONS of that year had already prompted General Ne Win to resign, but few believed that his successor, the much-hated General Sein Lwin, would be any improvement. The old regime lingered on; it needed to be toppled.

The 1988 uprising was brutally crushed. The regime did eventually fall the following month only to be replaced by an even more oppressive military dictatorship. The uprising thus did not immediately achieve its aims. The people of Myanmar still lived in poverty and fear.

But it was also far from a failure. The demonstration of people power made clear that the military could not wield power indefinitely; if it tried, the threat of unrest would never be far away. Myanmar would be in a perpetual state of instability. Only a popularly elected government would suffice.

And so the path to democracy had been laid. There would be further sacrifices and struggles; thousands more would suffer at the hands of the junta. These brave people would lose their jobs, their futures, their rights – even their lives – in the name of democracy and political progress.

Eventually, once the military leadership had engineered a way out of direct dictatorship that still largely preserved its political and economic interests, elections were held, political prisoners freed and the people given the chance to make their voices heard.

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The anniversary is an opportunity to recall how far Myanmar has come. The country is freer and more prosperous than ever; its people have more rights and more power. Simply the fact that this anniversary can be commemorated openly – unthinkable a few years ago – says a great deal.

But it is also a time to recognise how far Myanmar still has to go. The “discipline-flourishing democracy” introduced by the 2008 Constitution is mostly unsatisfying. It entails too many compromises, too much injustice, the undermining of too many values essential to democracy. Parliaments, parties and elections are markers of democracy, but their presence does not mean that democracy has been achieved.

So although the National League for Democracy has been elected to parliament with the votes of millions of citizens and formed a government, there remains much work to do. The 2015 election was but one step on the path to realising the dreams of those who took to the streets in 1988.

Only when the military steps back from national political life, political and social rights are guaranteed for all, and ethnic minorities are granted the autonomy they seek, can Myanmar call itself a true democracy.

For this reason, 88 Generation leaders were right to draw attention to the 2008 Constitution at ceremonies to mark the anniversary on August 8.

Constitutional change will be required to achieve all of these goals. Although the military can veto proposed amendments through the 25 percent of seats it holds in parliament, it would also do well to remember that political leaders ignore the will of the people at their own risk.

So, on this anniversary, we pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives over the past three decades in the name of democracy, prosperity and freedom for all in Myanmar.

And we show our respect and support for those who continue to wage the fight against oppression and tyranny, in an effort to fulfil the dreams of those who took to the streets of Myanmar 30 years ago.

This editorial first appeared in the August 16 issue of Frontier. 

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