ON 18 AUGUST 1988, a Burmese demonstrator addresses a large crowd of pro-democracy protesters gathered outside the general hospital at Rangoon. Twenty-six years of one-party military rule, under the Burma Socialist Programme Party, had left the economy in tatters, fanning discontent among students, Buddhist monks, activists and disaffected soldiers. The protests forced General Ne Win, who had taken power in a 1962 coup d’état, to resign as chairperson of the BSPP on 23 July 1988. Even as he promised elections and handed over the reins of the state to his successor, Sein Liwn, Ne Win warned opponents of the regime: “When the army shoots, it shoots to kill.”
Ne Win’s resignation spurred attempts to establish multi-party democracy and civil oversight of the military. Large sections of the populace, even in rural areas, united under the fighting peacock insignia of the All-Burma Federation of Student Unions. A general strike and mass demonstrations were planned for 8 August 1988, because of which the protests are known as the 8888 Uprising. The National League for Democracy, under Aung San Suu Kyi, rose to prominence by organising some of the largest political rallies.
However, Ne Win’s warning soon came to pass. The military responded by shooting unarmed demonstrators. Estimates of the death toll range between three thousand and ten thousand. On 18 September, the military top brass was reconstituted as the State Law and Order Restoration Committee. The junta allowed multi-party elections in 1990, but ignored the result after the NLD won by a landslide.
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