Rights Group Calls for Probe on Eve of Myanmar’s ‘88 Uprising’ Anniversary

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Global rights advocate Human Rights Watch called Tuesday for an investigation into Myanmar’s bloody crackdown on a 1988 popular uprising as groups began marking the 25th anniversary of the pro-democracy movement.

The country’s former ruling military junta has not been held accountable for the deaths of thousands of protesters in the crackdown despite Myanmar’s transition to democratic rule over the past two years, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch HRW said.

It urged President Thein Sein to commit to investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the brutal suppression of the movement on Aug. 8, 1988.

“The mass killings 25 years ago in Burma are an unaddressed open wound that challenges the government’s rhetoric of reform,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams, using the previous name of Myanmar.

“The government should shed itself of 50 years of denial about military abuses by showing that it stands with the Burmese people and not with the killers of the past.”

In the crackdown, troops fired on peaceful protesters after a nationwide strike involving thousands of students, Buddhist monks, civil servants, and ordinary citizens had led to simultaneous protests in cities and towns across Myanmar.

Protesters fought back with makeshift weapons in what became known as the “88 Uprising,” and daily calls for a transition to democracy and an end to military rule continued through September.

Silver Jubilee

Activists and former student leaders are commemorating the Aug. 8 anniversary with a three-day conference that began in the former capital Yangon on Tuesday, as well as marches and memorials nationwide.

The memorials are the third time the anniversary has been commemorated publicly since Myanmar began emerging from decades of military rule in March 2011, when President Thein Sein took over following landmark general elections.

Some 1,500 activists, politicians, Buddhist monks, and ethnic leaders gathered in Yangon for the opening of the “Silver Jubilee for the Four Eights Democracy Movement” conference at the Myanmar Convention Center on Tuesday.

'Now truth can show its face'

Min Ko Naing, the foremost leader of the 1988 student movement and now a leader in the 88 Generation Students civil society organization that grew out of the uprising, told the somber audience that the spirit of the movement was still alive among the people of Myanmar.

“During this dark period [over the past 25 years], there were times that truth was kept in a corner and half of its face was covered by a hat. Now that truth can show its face,” he said in his keynote speech.

“Although many government slogans have been changed, the ‘8888 spirit’ of the people has not changed. This is the spirit of opposition to unfair privilege and oppression.”

He said the violence of the crackdown should not be forgotten.

“I feel that I am speaking today as a representative of the scattered slippers and bloody handkerchiefs left on the streets during 1988 uprising,” he said.

Attendees at the conference also met to discuss current problems facing the country as it emerges from military rule, including calls for greater autonomy from ethnic groups and national reconciliation.

Htay Kwe, another 88 Generation Students leader, said Myanmar is still in a period of transition.

“We celebrate this ceremony with the aim of the civil peace and national reconciliation that Myanmar needs,” he said, adding that the history of the uprising must not be “camouflaged by power.”

The jubilee will include a formal ceremony on Thursday, when activists will also honor those who died in the movement with a march through the streets of Yangon, which 25 years ago was the scene of bloody street battles.

Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who returned to Myanmar amid the protest in 1988 and was held under house arrest by the junta, will address the gathering in Yangon Wednesday.

The Yangon jubilee and other commemorations in cities such as Mandalay, Bago, and Yenangyaung also include public exhibits of once-banned photos, video, paintings, and other records from the uprising as well as the pro-democracy movement it sparked.

Reported by Zin Mar Win, Sao Paing Toe, and Yadanar Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
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