Editorial
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, June 16, 2024
Magazine

EDITOR'S PERSPECTIVE

Editorial


By The Irrawaddy MARCH, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.3


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(Page 3 of 11)

As the first signs of serious public unrest in Burma began to appear in 1985, the year Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Program Party demonetized the 100-kyat note, Min Ko Naing and his close colleagues secretly established an underground student union in anticipation of a political uprising.

Min Ko Naing’s creative character provided him with the means to express his views publicly through participation in than gyat, a traditional contest held during the Burmese New Year in April. This contest involves the performance of songs and plays by colorfully dressed troupes. Traditionally, the performers parodied those in power, but under Ne Win, direct criticism of the government was forbidden. When Min Ko Naing and his friends started their own troupe in 1985, however, they attempted to revive the original spirit of than gyat. Calling themselves "Goat Mouth and All-Seeing Eye," they made jokes at the expense of Ne Win’s regime and highlighted the lack of freedom and democracy in Burma, as well as the corruption among its officials.

Min Ko Naing’s Than Gyat troupe proved to be very popular with its audiences of ordinary Burmese. It also attracted the attention of the dreaded Military Intelligence Services (MIS), whose agents were seen following them one night after a performance. But convinced that the time would soon be ripe for political change, Min Ko Naing and his friends pursued their study of the country’s deteriorating political, social and economic conditions, and planned to start a political movement in the near future. They managed to conceal these activities from the watchful eyes of the MIS until 1988.

The democracy movement in 1988

Dissatisfaction with Ne Win’s regime came to a head in March 1988, when university students in Rangoon started protesting against the government’s brutal killing of some students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT).

On March 16, 1988, about 3,000 students came to listen to "a thin, dark-skinned young man with curly hair, a slight moustache and beard (who) was giving anti-government speeches at Taung Ngu dormitory in the RASU campus," recalled another prominent activist. "That was Min Ko Naing."

Min Ko Naing called on students to speak out against the government’s mistreatment. He also told them about the history of student movements in Burma, and the role they played in national politics, something the military government tried to play down in their textbooks. It was Min Ko Naing’s first public speech.

The students then marched to the Convocation Hall where Min Ko Naing and other student leaders gave more speeches. He told his audience about the fate of earlier students’ movements that had challenged the present regime: "Our brothers in the past sacrificed to topple this military dictatorship but their demands were only met with violence, bullets and killing."

When the speeches had ended, the students left the RASU campus to join a small demonstration at RIT. They soon found themselves facing a barricade of barbed wire manned by dozens of soldiers on the Prome Road.

Confronted with this show of force, Min Ko Naing asked the students to sing the national anthem and salute Burma’s independence heroes, including Gen Aung San, founder of the Burmese Army. Then they shouted, "The peoples’ soldiers are our soldiers."

Min Ko Naing and two other students then went to negotiate with the army officer in charge. Stressing the importance of good relations between the army and the people, he asked the officer to let them pass. The officer refused, insisting that he had to follow orders from his superiors, but Min Ko Naing’s words seemed to have had some effect. After hearing him speak the soldiers lowered their guns and the tension eased.

Suddenly, however, hundreds of riot police rushed in from behind and, without warning, started beating the students. Some tried to escape their attackers by fleeing to nearby Inya Lake, where many drowned. Those who couldn’t escape were severely beaten and taken to Insein prison.

After this, the government closed down the universities and colleges. Min Ko Naing and his fellow student activists went into hiding to continue their activities. When the universities and colleges were reopened in June, the activists immediately began distributing anti-government leaflets urging students to join the student movement.



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