MYANMAR: Remembering the 1988 student generation

As another anniversary of the violent repression of Burma's (now Myanmar's) democratic uprising of 1988 approaches, a new book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's tyrant* recalls the sacrifices made then by the country's university students, the 8.8.88 generation.

In the first biography of Than Shwe (pictured) the campuses were major centres of opposition to General Ne Win's militarised 'Burmese Way To Socialism'. The dictatorship had by then lasted since 1962.

Following the deeply superstitious strongman's decision to de-monetise 25, 45 and 75 kyat notes, a move that overnight wiped out many people's savings, students took to the streets in the capital Rangoon and in Mandalay to the north.

They immediately provided a focus for a broader movement which quickly blossomed until few parts of the country were untouched. The initial protests came from students at the Rangoon Institute of Technology following discriminatory police intervention in an off-campus brawl involving students and non-students.

At least one of the latter was from a family within the Ne Win inner circle. The regime, like others of its kind, understood only one language: brutality.

In the dark days that followed as many as 3,000 people were killed by the regime. Ne Win was quoted as saying, "The Burmese military does not shoot in the air..."

Female students were singled out for vicious sexual assaults in the form of gang rapes by soldiers. The democracy movement was, as we all know, eventually defeated.

The repression that followed included extended periods of closure for the nation's universities whose turnover of graduates thus became patchy and low and in which academic quality plummeted.

In short, academic life in Burma (only the generals call the country Myanmar) is a totally debased currency. The book tells the story of a man said to be one of the world's most brutal dictators, and of the suffering of the people of Burma under his rule.

Drawing on his own travels to Burma and its borders, and interviews with Burmese defectors and international diplomats, Rogers describes the life of Than Shwe, his developing nuclear programme, links with North Korea, arms sales from China, the new capital Naypyidaw, his skills in psychological warfare and his belief in astrology, and the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by his regime.

The plight of the few Burmese able to reach a second or a third country in pursuit of higher education has never needed more highlighting than it does now.

There is thus a strong case for affirmative action by universities in the developed world to allow young Burmese with academic ambitions to pursue courses.

* Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's tyrant by Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, is published by Silkworm Books.