Burmese citizens campaign for democracy, 1988

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Mainly centered in Rangoon
Primary: To abolish the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) and establish democracy.

Secondary: The upholding of basic human rights, restoration of students expelled at the beginning of the protests


By the year 1988, political, social and economic life in Burma was under the repressive military rule of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), headed by General Ne Win. Since the military coup in 1962, the Burmese had been subjected to extreme socioeconomic isolation and heavy state control that extended from the media and universities to social events and monasteries. Although citizens, and in particular students, protested throughout the 60’s, violent repression was enough to cease all opposition until 1987 when unrest began to stir once again within the Burmese population. It was this year that the government whimsically decided to demonetize the 25, 35 and 75 Kyat notes, leaving only currency that added up to nine in circulation (General Ne Win’s lucky number). The already weak economy was now in ruins.

Students were particularly affected by this loss of savings, and with the prospect of tuition bills looming they began to protest. In the spring of 1988, students from Burma’s prestigious university, RIT (Rangoon Institute of Technology) were chatting at a local teashop when a brawl instigated by local teenagers broke out, resulting in several arrests. The next day a prominent general’s son was released, and in an attempt to quell the subsequent students’ protests a young man was killed by officials. Students were infuriated.

What began as sporadic and reactionary protests just a few months prior quickly became organized and strategic. With the atmosphere in greater Burma ripe for change, student mobilization came at a critical time. Students began to hold mass demonstrations and marches condemning the killing of student activist, Maung Phone Maw and calling for a restoration of democracy. Students faced increasingly tight security. In the face of violent repression such as the “White Bridge” massacre in which hundreds of student protestors were gunned down and hundreds more arrested, it was time for mass mobilization.

Public support for the students swelled as massive demonstrations began to spill into the streets of Burma’s capital, Rangoon. In blatant violation of the newly imposed curfew and ban on public gatherings, students began to spread word that there was to be a massive nationwide strike and demonstrations on August 8, 1988 (8.8.88). As they marched from the halls of RIT to the streets of Rangoon, citizens joined them by the hundreds of thousands. The general strike began with dockworkers, who left their posts at 8:08 a.m.

The streets swelled with protestors shouting antigovernment slogans, and holding portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s revolutionary hero. The military remained seemingly non-responsive to the demonstrators until 11:45 pm when they sprayed automatic fire into the unarmed crowds. Undaunted and in-fact more resolute in their convictions to demand an end to one party rule, massive street demonstrations continued in Rangoon and other major cities throughout the country, gaining strength over the next four days despite the government’s brutal and indiscriminate killings.

On August 12, Sein Lwin, the new leader of the BSPP, resigned to the joy of Burmese protestors, but the struggle for full resignation of the BSPP was not over. After a week of lull in demonstrations, a second general strike was called, and daily demonstrations continued to cripple the country. On August 24, with their authority severely compromised, the government and military were forced to withdraw from the capital, promising a referendum on the issue of multiparty elections.

On August 26 daughter of General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi, coincidently in Burma at this time to visit her ailing mother, addressed a crowd of thousands and emerged as the leader of campaign inspiring a surge of hope for the Burmese.

In the absence of government security, local citizen committees emerged consisting of monks, community elders and students to run daily affairs and act as interrogators and judges in the face of increasing crime. In spite of efforts to maintain order, chaos grew. Perplexing instances of lootings, drugged citizens acting violently, and prison riots that released thousands of Burmese criminals into the streets pointed to government instigation of widespread disorder. It was this very chaos that paved the way for the government’s re-assumption of power on September 18 under the name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

Although the promise of elections was a huge victory for the Burmese, demonstrations and strikes continued, calling for an interim government to oversee the elections. In October, opposition energies became largely focused on the upcoming elections and the Burmese began to head back to work. Hope of the 1990 elections hovered in the air, but diminished as state repression grew heavier and students fled to bordering countries and guerrilla encampments. In 1990 elections were held, and despite the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, her party won overwhelmingly. Hope and enthusiasm converged upon the population, especially in the midst of extensive international media coverage of the election. But Aung San’s victory went unacknowledged by the regime. Opposition slowed to a halt in the next few months as the international community failed to intervene and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under indefinite house arrest. Despite the hope brought on by the 1990 elections, the Burmese campaigners were unable to oust the military regime.

Research Notes

As recent as 2007, Monks in now Myanmar began protests again (see "Burmese (Myanmar) monks campaign for democracy (Saffron Revolution), 2007"). (2)

Paulson, Joshua. "Burmese Defy the Military Dictators--1988-1990." in Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential by Gene Sharp. Boston: Extending Horizons Books: Boston, 2005.

Lintner, Bertil. Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy. Hong Kong: Review Publishing. 1989

Human Rights Watch (Organization) Crackdown: repression of the 2007 popular protests In Burma. New York: Human Rights Watch, [2007]

Boudreau, Vincent. Resisting dictatorship: repression and protest in Southeast Asia. Cambridge, CB, UK ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004

BBC News. "Eyewitness: 'Euphoria in Rangoon'" 14 August 1998.


Additional Notes: 
Though the national campaign and strike lasted until October demonstrations did not discontinue in protest of student imprisonment, Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest and a continued call to end the one party system in Burma until the elections in 1990. At the time of writing the Burmese continue to live under repressive military rule.

Edited by Max Rennebohm (09/09/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Sarah Noble, 09/06/2009