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.
When Ne Win, the now-retired chairman of the ruling junta, kept his promise to "shoot to kill those who stand against us," there were no television comeras linked to satellite dishes, as there were during China's bloody response to the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square the following year. Over the next four days several thousand Burmese died in the streets and in the prisons, under torture, and even in their homes as the army stormed the crooked lanes, firing at random into flimsy homes. Anyone with a camera was a target. Perhaps the world really took notice only when a charismatic woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero Aung San, was placed under house arrest in July 1989. Thereafter, so the junta calculated, they could proceed with an election that, without her, they were certain to win and that would legitimize their dictatorship. In fact, they lost spectacularly: Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82 percent of the parliamentary seats; she even swept the board in principal army cantonments.
Shocked, the generals (who had renamed the regime the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known by its Orwellian moniker SLORC) threw most of the newly elected Parliament into prison and turned Burma into what Amnesty International has described as "a prison without walls." Since then, year upon year, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has translated Burma's tyranny into the following catalog: "Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labor, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association, and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities."
Read the rest of Pilger’s dispatch, Burma: Slave Nation.