Auspicious Day of 8/8/88 Turns Deadly in Rangoon Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following a campus protest in which six students were killed by the Burmese military, a prodemocracy uprising erupted in Rangoon that was violently suppressed by the military. General Saw Maung proclaimed himself head of the State Law and Order Restoration Council on September 23, 1988, ushering in an era of military rule.

Summary of Event

Since 1962, the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) had ruled Burma under the harsh rule of Ne Win. Not affiliated with either Soviet or Chinese communism, the BSPP pursued economic self-sufficiency and rejected much of the modern world, including capitalist economics. It stressed an austere, agrarian way of life. Although the BSPP had an ambitious ideological platform, it was generally perceived as a front organization for the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw. Periodic restiveness was quickly suppressed. Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses Four Eights uprising [kw]Auspicious Day of 8/8/88 Turns Deadly in Rangoon (Aug. 8, 1988) [kw]Rangoon, Auspicious Day of 8/8/88 Turns Deadly in (Aug. 8, 1988) Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses Four Eights uprising [g]Southeast Asia;Aug. 8, 1988: Auspicious Day of 8/8/88 Turns Deadly in Rangoon[06890] [g]Burma;Aug. 8, 1988: Auspicious Day of 8/8/88 Turns Deadly in Rangoon[06890] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Aug. 8, 1988: Auspicious Day of 8/8/88 Turns Deadly in Rangoon[06890] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 8, 1988: Auspicious Day of 8/8/88 Turns Deadly in Rangoon[06890] Aung San Suu Kyi Maung Maung Kha, U Saw Maung Min Ko Naing Ne Win Sein Lwin, U

This system began to buckle in late 1987 when students at the nation’s leading university, the Rangoon Institute of Technology, began to protest over a sudden currency devaluation by the government. By March, 1988, the military had become sufficiently unnerved to react. On March 13, they invaded the university’s premises and killed six students. Scores more were arrested and killed in custody of the authorities. This generated an unexpected spurt of protest in Rangoon, which, along with more killings of demonstrators in June, led to Ne Win’s resignation in late July. His replacement was U Sein Lwin, a hard-line figure associated with brutally suppressing similar protests twenty-six years before.

Unrest continued under Sein Lwin, cresting on August 8, a day thought particularly auspicious because of the role of eight as a lucky number in Buddhism; the alignment of the numbers on 8/8/88, the Four Eights (shiq lay lone in Burmese), was seen as a portent of a fortunate outcome for the student protests. On August 8, support for the rebellion was at its maximum, including that of urban professionals and some segments of the poor as well as the core of students and activists. Sein Lwin, under pressure from the protests, quickly resigned and was replaced by U Maung Maung Kha, a respected lawyer and administrator who was widely seen as a transitional figure, whose rule was intended to culminate in the replacement of the BSPP regime by a democratic government. As expressions of popular dissent multiplied, leaders emerged among the students, such as Min Ko Naing. New energy also arrived from outside Burma by the return to the country of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the nation’s first postindependence leader, Aung San. Despite her lack of political experience, she quickly emerged as a magnetic figure in the eyes of the Burmese public.

Burmese children call for democracy in the streets of Rangoon in late August, 1988. Despite the popular uprising, a military government was established the following month.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Despite these promising events, on September 23, General Saw Maung proclaimed himself head of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), dissolving all previous political institutions. What Saw Maung really meant to accomplish, however, was to curb the prodemocracy movement, which he did with relative ease despite the cauldron of resentment the government’s previous repression had unexpectedly stoked. Many observers were surprised how quickly the flames of dissent were extinguished. Some analysts pointed to the absence of a strong base of civil society and nonpartisan mediating structures, which would have lent background support to the demonstrators.

The Tatmadaw, recruited from a largely peasant base and composed of men who had spent their entire adult career in the army, did not include, among its 170,000 total personnel, many elements equipped to understand and empathize with the grievances of the well-educated, middle- to upper-class urban dissidents in Rangoon. The Tatmadaw played the populist card in this respect. However, it also used traditional Burmese notions of hierarchy and deference to buttress its authority against popular protest.

The 1989 renaming of the country in English as “Myanmar,” widely misunderstood in the West, was a recursion to the more learned form of the nation’s name, Myanma, used by scholars and in the traditional courts of the precolonial Burmese dynasties, whereas “Burma” derived from the more vernacular name Bama, in more general use among the broad population. The name change was an attempt to show that democracy was neither politically viable in Burma nor culturally plausible.

The name Myanmar also privileged ethnic Burmese even more above the Shan, Karen, and Arakanese peoples who had been in various states of rebellion against the central government since the country’s independence from Great Britain. The Myanmar name also represented the Tatmadaw’s opinion that it constituted an exclusive, cultural elite. Some have speculated that the Tatmadaw tolerated the Four Eights demonstration in order to suppress it and thus vanquish democracy as a future prospect once and for all. Though this may have overestimated the Tatmadaw’s ability to manipulate events, all that emerged from the student rebellion was increased military power.

At a certain point in the summer of 1988, it seemed as if political events in Burma were following the trajectory of the People Power movement in the Philippines in February, 1986, where popular demonstrations prompted the collapse of a long-entrenched dictatorship. However, Burma’s greater isolation combined with the lack of dissident elements of the army to make the situation very different from that in the Philippines. Much as occurred nine months later in the Tiananmen Square suppression in China, the Burmese military was able to prevail and cement the existing hegemony, despite the fervor and enthusiasm of the student protesters.

China and Burma were exceptions to the wave of democratic change that swept around the world in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but dissidents within Burma and in the Burmese diaspora still look to the legacy of the Democracy Summer as a spur to the realization of their hopes.

Significance

The suppression of the Four Eights demonstration was the hinge of the transition of the BSPP era to the SLORC era—a transition continuing the same fundamental principle of domination but involving new personalities and a reformulation of the Tatmadaw’s rationale of rule. Somewhat analogous to most of the European Revolutions of 1848, the suppressed rebellion ended up generating a reconsolidated form of the original power. However, not only reconsolidation but also some recasting ensued.

After the Four Eights, the Tatmadaw shed the rhetoric of socialism it had earlier espoused, now practically delegitimated as a result of the contemporaneous reforms in the Soviet bloc. The BSPP was jettisoned as an instrument of power and was renamed, becoming a minor party associated with marginal figures. The SLORC was a military regime, with no recourse to the apparatus of party ideology that had occurred in the BSPP era. Its self-justification became less idealistic and utopian and more cynical and practical as what Burmese called the kyaut khit or “era of fear” began.

After 1988, the Tatmadaw embraced capitalism and even seemed to favor a certain version of postmodern relativism, attempting to efface the memory of the Four Eights demonstration on the grounds that there was no universal truth and that truth can be a function of whatever the state decides. In 1989, a SLORC spokesman stated, “Truth is true only within a certain period of time.” As the Four Eights receded into the past, the Tatmadaw, defying elections in 1990 that gave a majority to Aung San Suu Kyi, successfully managed to stave off both the internal dissent and international opprobrium its actions had generated. The Tatmadaw’s ability not only to hold on to power in material terms but also to surround this retention with a reframed rationalization was testimony to the survival skills that the Four Eights demonstrators, in their democratic euphoria, had perhaps underestimated. Human rights abuses;Myanmar Myanmar, human rights abuses Four Eights uprising

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Becka, Jan. Historical Dictionary of Myanmar. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. Convenient and well-organized reference source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boudreau, Vincent. Resisting Dictatorship: Repression and Protest in Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Takes a comparative approach in juxtaposing the Burmese protests to those in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and other countries in the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fink, Christina. Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule. Bangkok: Dcothai, 2001. Psychological study of a people under repression that gives background on the reluctance of the Burmese people to risk fully supporting the Four Eights protests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Selth, Andrew. Burma’s Armed Forces: Power Without Glory. Norwalk, Conn.: Eastbridge, 2002. Devoted exclusively to the Burmese army, the book matter-of-factly details the structure, operation, and ideology of the Tatmadaw, including its views on foreign relations and regional rivalries. Includes extensive coverage of the events of 1988.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skidmore, Monique. Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Skidmore, an Australian anthropologist, takes an ethnographic approach that shows how a climate of fear helped suppress the student protests and harness the Burmese people to a vision of authoritarian modernity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinberg, David I. Burma: The State of Myanmar. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2001. Thorough, accessible overview of recent Burmese history and the current political structure of the country.

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