Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, and an Epic Revolt

| 8/13/2009 12:54:54 PM

In 1996, shortly after Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest she met with a visiting journalist and told him: “I'm afraid that countries and events keep slipping from the headlines, and we have slipped.”

Suu Kyi’s freedom would be short-lived, and today Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi are in the headlines. The European Union is broadening its sanctions against the murderous Burmese regime, and this weekend, as the Obama administration mulls its response to yet another house arrest sentence for Suu Kyi, U.S. Senator Jim Webb will become the first senior U.S. official to meet with Burma’s leadership. Ever.

Burma’s constant media blackout, enforced by the regime, makes keeping up with current events in Burma is difficult enough. Learning its history is another thing altogether. John Pilger attempted to write some of the unwritten history of Burma in 1996, and we reprinted his dispatch from the country in the pages of Utne Reader. It’s a history of inspiring grassroots action and terrible government violence. Here’s Pilger recounting the dramatic events that led to Suu Kyi’s first house arrest:

Few outside Burma know about the epic events that took place here between 1988 and 1990. Few have heard of the White Bridge on Inya Lake in the center of Rangoon, now known to foreign businesspeople as the site of an "international business center." Yet it was here that an uprising as momentous as the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was sparked. On March 18, 1988, hundreds of schoolchildren and students marched along the bridge, singing the national anthem, signaling that they wanted no more of the authoritarian rule that had been in place since a 1962 military coup. The march was as joyful as it was defiant. When suddenly they saw behind them the steel helmets of the Lon Htein, the "riot police," they knew they were trapped.

According to eyewitnesses I have interviewed in exile, the soldiers systematically beat many of the protesters to death, singling out the girls. A few protesters managed to escape into the lake, where they were caught, beaten, and drowned. Of those who survived, 42 were locked in a waiting van parked in the noonday sun outside Insein prison, where they died of suffocation. At the White Bridge fire engines were brought in to wash away the blood.

This state-sanctioned violence did not put an end to the protests. On the contrary: After months of rising popular confidence, the moment of general uprising came precisely at eight minutes past eight on the morning of the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988. This was the auspicious time the dockers chose to go on strike, and the country followed: teachers, journalists, railway workers, weather forecasters, grave diggers, even prison warders and police. The massive demonstration, soon joined by students, numbered more than 10,000 protesters.

James O'Brien
8/17/2009 1:10:06 PM

Its not easy to be shocked in an age of tribal genocide by machete, mass starvation as a political tool, and routine torture of political prisoners, but Myanmar/Burma's history is shocking. Isn't there anyone who can influence these thugs - China? Thailand?

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