The 8888 Uprising in Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar, Bagan, Buddhist monks on temple
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Throughout the previous year, students, Buddhist monks, and pro-democracy advocates had been protesting against Myanmar's military leader, Ne Win, and his erratic and repressive policies.  The demonstrations forced him out of office on July 23, 1988, but Ne Win appointed General Sein Lwin as his replacement. Sein Lwin was known as the "Butcher of Rangoon" for being in command of the army unit that massacred 130 Rangoon University students in July of 1962, as well as for other atrocities.

 

Tensions, already high, threatened to boil over.  The student leaders set the auspicious date of August 8, or 8/8/88, as the day for nationwide strikes and protests against the new regime.

The 8/8/88 Protests:

In the week leading up to the protest day, all of Myanmar (Burma) seemed to rise up.  Human shields protected speakers at political rallies from retaliation by the army. Opposition newspapers printed and openly distributed anti-government papers.  Entire neighborhoods barricaded their streets and set up defenses, in case the army should try to move through.  Through the first week of August, it seemed that Burma's pro-democracy movement had unstoppable momentum on its side.

The protests were peaceful at first, with demonstrators even encircling army officers in the street to shield them from any violence.  However, as the protests spread to even rural areas of Myanmar, Ne Win decided to call army units in the mountains back to the capital as reinforcements.

  He ordered that the army disperses the massive protests and that their "guns were not to shoot upward" - an elliptical "shoot to kill" order. 

Even in the face of live fire, the protesters remained in the streets through August 12. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the army and police and raided police stations for firearms.

On August 10, soldiers chased protesters into Rangoon General Hospital and then began shooting down the doctors and nurses who were treating wounded civilians. 

On August 12, after just 17 days in power, Sein Lwin resigned the presidency.  The protesters were ecstatic but unsure about their next move. They demanded that the sole civilian member of the upper political echelon, Dr. Maung Maung, be appointed to replace him. Maung Maung would remain president for just one month.  This limited success did not halt the demonstrations; on August 22, 100,000 people gathered in Mandalay for a protest.  On August 26, as many as 1 million people turned out for a rally at Shwedagon Pagoda in the center of Rangoon. 

One of the most electrifying speakers at that rally was Aung San Suu Kyi, who would go on to win the presidential elections in 1990 but would be arrested and jailed before she could take power.  She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her support of peaceful resistance to military rule in Burma.

Bloody clashes continued in the cities and town of Myanmar for the rest of 1988.  Throughout early September, as the political leaders temporized and made plans for gradual political change, the protests grew ever more violent.

  In some cases, the army provoked the demonstrators into open battle so that the soldiers would have an excuse to mow down their opponents.

On September 18, 1988, General Saw Maung led a military coup that seized power and declared the harsh martial law.  The army used extreme violence to break up demonstrations, killing 1,500 people in just the first week of military rule alone, including monks and schoolchildren.  Within two weeks, the 8888 Protest movement had collapsed.

By the end of 1988, thousands of protesters and smaller numbers of police and army troops were dead.  Estimates of the casualties run from the implausible official figure of 350 to around 10,000.  Additional thousands of people disappeared or were imprisoned.  The ruling military junta kept universities shuttered through the year 2000 to prevent students from organizing further protests.

The 8888 Uprising in Myanmar was eerily similar to the Tiananmen Square Protests that would break out the following year in Beijing, China.  Unfortunately for the protesters, both resulted in mass killings and little political reform - at least, in the short run.