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20 years on: How much closer to the goals of 8888?

Htet Aung Kyaw

Aug 5, 2008 (DVB), While the whole world is busy with the Beijing Olympics, many Burmese are preparing for the 20th anniversary of the 8888 uprising which falls on 8 August 2008, or 080808.

But how many Burmese people have seriously reviewed how far this 20-year journey has taken them towards the goals of 8888?

There will be no chance of holding a big ceremony inside the country as key activists such as Min Ko Naing of the 88 Generation Students group have been in jail since last August after they led a peaceful demonstration against the fuel price hike which led on to September’s saffron revolution. But many activists across the globe plan to hold a big ceremony to mark the 20 years.

In neighbouring Thailand, US president Bush and first lady Laura Bush will encourage Burmese activists in Bangkok to fight on for their freedom in a 6 August address before the couple head on to the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. This is significant support from the world's most powerful country at this particular time but not significant enough to bring about change in Burma.

The US has tried to push the United Nations Security Council to punish the Burmese regime after two decades of economic and diplomatic sanctions have not had the desired effect. But China, the main supporter of the Burmese regime and business partner of the US has continually used its veto to oppose US plans.

"We want to urge the UNSC and world leaders to take action, not just give us words," said Htun Myin Aung of the 88 Generation Students group in a telephone interview with DVB from his hiding place in Rangoon.

"The UNSC and the US need urgently to announce that they do not recognise the junta’s referendum result," the fugitive leader adds, in a comparison with the Zimbabwean election result. If the UN can do that, the 88 Generation Students group, 1990 election representatives and many activists believe that there will be negotiations between junta leader senior general Than Shwe and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the leader of the rival 88 Generation Students group, Aye Lwin, does not agree with Htun Myint Aung. "This is just their dream of outside help. In reality, there is no dialogue but they need to try to win the 2010 election," the pro-junta student leader said.

"They blame the Tatmataw all the time but never try to organise. That is why we have not reached the goal or gained power in 20 years," the controversial figure criticised from his government-backed office in Rangoon.

There is no doubt that many activists, especially in exile, will react angrily to his comment. Why? Has he got his facts wrong or is it just hard to recognise the opinion of a rival group which differs from the traditional thinking of Burmese politicians over the past 20 years?

No matter whether we agree or disagree on that matter, we need to seriously consider why we have not yet reached the goal after 20 years.

Lack of unity

According to some leading activists and researchers, the main reason that the goal has not yet been reached is the lack of unity among leaders of the democratic movement. They point out that the opposition had a chance to found an interim government in the power vacuum between the 88 uprising and the 18 September coup. Secondly, they also had a major opportunity to take power after 1990 election which was won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party with 80 percent of the vote.

When the junta refused to recognise the result of the 1990 election, some politicians and activists went to the rebel-controlled areas where thousands of students from the 88 uprising founded a self-styled Student Army. In this Thai border area, they faced a similar lack of unity between the leaders of various groups.

The Student Army divided into two factions in 1991 while their allies in Kachin and Mon armed rebel groups signed ceasefire agreements with the junta in 1994 and 1995. The powerful Karen rebel groups split in late 1995 when the Buddhist Karen faction joined with the junta. This lack of unity among leaders made for a growing distrust between factions, and many students and politicians, including some Karen rebels, put down their guns and went to third countries while the junta troops occupied many of their bases.

Back in Rangoon, the junta held its National Convention in 1993 but the NLD walked out in 1996 after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 1995. Since then, the NLD has called for dialogue with the junta but never successfully, although there were some good meetings between Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi sponsored by the ousted prime minister Khin Nyunt before the 2003 Depayin massacre.

As for the international community, the UN General Assembly has been calling on the junta to respect the result of the 1990 election and engage in dialogue with the opposition since the 1990s. There have been at least three UN special envoys to Burma, including Gambari who is heading to Burma later this month. Even the UNSC has discussed Burma, and still there is no sign of Than Shwe changing his mind.

Hope for the future?

However, a good opportunity to deal with the junta has opened up since Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, leaving 135,000 people dead and missing while millions were made homeless. The junta needs million of dollars in urgent assistance from the outside world, though it criticises the west in the state-run media.

But the world body needed to know that "international aid is not the first priority for junta, but power". UN chief Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders well know how badly the SPDC has dealt with the aid operation to support millions of survivors. But Ban did not say a word about politics when he meet Than Shwe in Naypyidaw and focused only on the humanitarian mission. However, Than Shwe didn’t listen to the UN chief’s warnings but instead went ahead with all his political plans; the constitutional referendum in May, the adoption of the constitution in June and now the preparations for an election in 2010.

In this scenario, can there be any opportunity left to reconsider the SPDC-led seven step road map before the 2010 election in favour of dialogue as demanded by the 88 Generation Students group and 1990 election representatives?

No one can give a 100 percent guarantee but there is a still chance to try.

This is dependent on how much unity there is among world leaders, especially the five permanent members of the UNSC. This is dependent on how much unity there is among the leaders of Burmese democratic forces. This is also dependent on how much thought the junta gives to its future and the scenario of a changing world order.

"We need action now – not more words." This is what young activists will shout on the streets of Rangoon on 080808.

Htet Aung Kyaw was one of the students involved in the 1988 uprising and a former Student Army rebel. He is now working for the Oslo-Based Democratic Voice of Burma as a senior journalist.


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