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After 34 Years, ’88 Generation Continues to Inspire, and to Sacrifice

Myanmar’s military shot dead 16-year-old student activist Ma Win Maw Oo during the pro-democracy popular uprising in 1988, which turns 34 years old on Monday.

Nearly 34 years after her death, the same military killed Ko Jimmy, who was also a young pro-democracy student activist back in 1988. Myanmar’s new regime, which is run by the military, hanged the 53-year-old veteran democracy activist in Yangon’s Insein Prison last month for his anti-regime activism against the current junta.

The killing of the two contemporary activists by the same military under different generals 34 years apart paints a grim picture of the reality Myanmar faces today.

Myanmar erupted into a nationwide pro-democracy protest on Aug. 8, 1988 to end the 26-year rule of dictator General Ne Win’s authoritarian regime. The protests continued until the military staged a coup in September and the army violently gunned down the protesters. At least 3,000 democracy supporters were killed.

Young anti-regime  activists mark the 34th anniversary of the 8888 pro-democracy uprising on Monday, holding umbrellas imprinted with the Myanmar digit ‘8’ in downtown Yangon. / Burma Revolution

While it failed to end military dictatorship in the country, the popular uprising paved the way for Myanmar’s short-lived democratic period, which was ended by another military takeover in February 2021.

The Myanmar people’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi established per political reputation in the ’88 uprising, out of which her National League for Democracy (NLD) was born. Then came the party’s landslide victory in the 1990 general election, whose result the military refused to honor. Fast forward more than two decades and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was leading a democratically elected civilian government until it was ousted by the putsch last year.

Were it not for the ’88 pro-democracy movement, it would have been difficult for any of the above to have come into existence.

The spirit of ’88 keeps Myanmar moving forward and striving for democracy even today, under Min Aung Hlaing’s dictatorship.

When the army staged a coup last year, millions of people defied military rule just as in 1988.

True to its old self, the army brutally cracked down on the protesters, as it did in 1988. After more than three decades, the military’s barbarism has not diminished. So far it has killed more than 2,000 civilians. It repression has been even crueler this time, including sending Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to solitary confinement in a prison, hanging Ko Jimmy and three other democracy activists, and launching airstrikes against civilians and anti-regime armed resistance forces.

But the people of Myanmar have undergone a radical change: no longer do they seek reconciliation with the military.

Infuriated by their sudden loss of freedom and democracy, which were hard won through the sacrifices of the ’88 pro-democracy movement, as well as the junta’s day-to-day atrocities against them, they are now determined to root out the military dictatorship in the country by any means necessary.

What they have in common with the ’88 generation is their craving for democracy and freedom. That’s why Ko Jimmy, a veteran of the 1988 uprising, paid with his life for his beliefs and for the country, just as Ma Win Maw Oo confronted the soldiers as they sprayed bullets on the streets of Yangon 34 years ago. The young anti-regime resistance fighters, whether in the Myanmar heartland or along the borders, feel the same. So do the urban guerrilla fighters in Yangon.

The ’88 pro-democracy uprising tried to kindle the torch of democracy in Myanmar.

Today, 34 years on, it is inspiring a new generation to keep the torch aflame, whatever it takes.