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1988: Forgive and forget?

Twenty-five years ago, the streets of Rangoon were spattered with blood. The pro-democracy uprising, known as 8-8-88, continues to haunt Burma’s history. Over 3,000 peaceful protestors were massacred by the military regime when commanders were ordered to shoot to kill. Thousands more were tortured and jailed.

But as Burma slowly moves towards democracy, activists have found themselves asking: Is it time to forgive and forget?

Earlier this month, thousands gathered at the Myanmar Convention Centre in Rangoon to pay tribute to the victims of the student-led uprisings. The staging of the event itself is a sign of Burma’s dramatic democratic transition, which has seen political prisoners freed and censorship reduced.

“We must not forget the past; we must learn from history,” opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent nearly two decades under house arrest, told the crowd.

Since a semi-civilian government took power in 2011, claiming an end to military rule, Burma has been moving towards democracy. But although the crimes of the past have been publicly recognised for the first time, nobody has been held to account.

International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for those responsible to finally be brought to justice.

“They have really been calling for it for 25 years, and even though the country is going through an important and complicated transition, I don’t think it is possible for the country to really move forward unless those responsible for 1988 are brought to account,” said David Mathieson, Senior Burma researcher for HRW.

Khin Ohmar was a student protestor at the time and was an eye witness to what happened.

“I was just up the road. I had a chance to see the security forces firing,” said the activist, who was living in exile in neighbouring Thailand until finally being able to return to Burma last year.

Many of the former generals from the military government are still in power today. But the country has come far and some do not want to disrupt the positive changes. A belief in forgiveness resonated strongly at the commemoration ceremony, with some describing it as necessary for the country to move on.

But others say it is not for the leaders to forgive, but the victims.

“We can forgive what happened to us individually, but we don’t have the right or the mandate to speak for the others,” said Khin Ohmar.

“They actually have to create a space for the victims or survivors of that injustice to be able to come forward and share what happened to them and also speak about what they want and how they want to see justice done.”

The military still dominates Burma, and security forces are handed immunity from prosecution under the current constitution. They have tens of thousands of troops throughout the country and in some border areas human rights abuses continue.

“I think people should be looking at justice and accountability in a potentially positive way in Burma – that it can actually help the transition and put an end to continued violations on the part of the military,” said Mathieson. “Not as something negative that is going to destroy the process.”

This week’s DVB Debate focuses on 8-8-88 and the question of national reconciliation. Highlights on:


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