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YANGON, Myanmar — Inya Lake dominates maps of Yangon, Myanmar’s main city. The long splotch of blue lies slightly north and west of downtown. It's a sprawling reservoir ringed by grand buildings, including the U.S. Embassy, Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's house and former military dictator Ne Win's onetime home.
I went there earlier this summer to see a different landmark -- an unremarkable white concrete fence crossing a culvert at the western end of the lake. Twenty-five years ago, in the first days of what would become massive nationwide demonstrations, riot police attacked students marching at this spot, beating and arresting scores and leaving dozens dead. It was the first time many of the students saw the regime's brutality up close and the moment many resolved to end it.
Nyi Nyi Aung was one of those students. He was 18 years old in 1988 and joined the movement in its early days. It was Nyi Nyi who took me to Inya Lake. We stood on a path along the lake's edge in the middle of the afternoon, watching young couples wander past. Others relaxed and talked on the bank below. "Right now, the new generation might not know how much blood was here," Nyi Nyi said. The bank, he said, was manicured and landscaped soon after the crackdown. "They don’t want the new generation to think about the 1988 events."
Nyi Nyi and others whose activism began in 1988 have worked against long odds to keep the memory of those months alive and to deliver on their promise. What began at Inya Lake drives them today. On our way back to his car, Nyi Nyi stopped, looked at me and said, "If I stop fighting, then all those people will have died for nothing."
If that's all we wanted, we would have stopped fighting 25 years ago.
I first heard of Nyi Nyi Aung four years ago. He fled Burma (as the country was known in 1988) shortly after the uprising, living in Thailand for five years before arriving in the United States as a refugee. He became a U.S. citizen but remained a vocal opponent of Myanmar's military regime. Nyi Nyi nurtured a network of activists along the Thai-Myanmar border and was arrested in 2009 while trying to sneak back into the country. I covered his arrest and six-month imprisonment and met him in the U.S. a few weeks after his release.
We met again this summer at the downtown Yangon guesthouse where I was staying. I was interested in getting his take on the much-heralded changes now taking places in Myanmar. In 2010, after 50 years of repressive military rule, a nominally civilian government was elected and quickly set the country on a path of reform, ending opposition leader Suu Kyi's house arrest, increasing personal freedoms, releasing thousands of political prisoners from jail and opening its doors to the world. Nyi Nyi, along with many other activists and journalists, was removed from a government blacklist and returned to the country last fall.
We sat in the guesthouse lobby for a few hours, and I peppered him with questions. Then in the early afternoon, we drove through snarled traffic to an open-air café in a leafy township about six miles from central Yangon.
After hours of responding to my questions, he had one for me: What did I think of the changes I was seeing in Myanmar? There was clearly a lot of work to be done in the country, I told him. But I'd been struck on my two recent trips by how eager people were to talk. Until recently, speaking to a foreign journalist could have easily landed them in jail. Or take the two of us, I said. Four years ago, Nyi Nyi was arrested for trying to enter Myanmar, and I certainly wouldn’t have been allowed in. Surely the fact that we were now sitting in Yangon talking openly was a sign of progress.
"But if that’s all we wanted," Nyi Nyi said, "we would have stopped fighting 25 years ago."
By early September of 1988, the protests had forced the resignation of Ne Win, a military dictator who had come to power in 1962. A civilian leader took his place, the government pledged to move toward democracy, and martial law was lifted.
There was a burst of free media unlike anything since before the 1962 coup, and hand-printed newspapers flourished. Photographs of Suu Kyi, who returned to the country from the United Kingdom that year and became involved in the protests, started to appear on the front pages of newspapers. For once, it seemed, the people had the upper hand.
But the promise of that time wasn't fulfilled.
Maung Maung, a Western-educated intellectual, led a lenient government from late August to early September. Although civilian in name, he was widely understood to be under the sway of the military.
On Sept. 18, the military grabbed control and began a brutally efficient crackdown. After the smoke cleared, an estimated 3,000 demonstrators had been killed. Another 3,000 were in jail, and about 10,000, including Nyi Nyi, had fled into exile.
The weeks preceding the coup saw increasing mayhem, as civilians looted shops and fought one another in the streets. Many activists suggest that the army allowed the situation to spiral out of control to send a message, which Nyi Nyi Aung summarizes this way: "If you don't have the security of the army, you will see chaos."
For Nyi Nyi, those weeks in September have eerie and instructive similarities to Myanmar's present.
In the past year, the government has lifted some press restrictions, ending censorship and allowing newspapers to publish daily editions. An assortment of young media is flourishing. Journalists tackle prickly subjects, and photos of opposition leader Suu Kyi, long forbidden, are again ubiquitous.
But many think Myanmar's new nominally civilian government is too closely aligned with the armed forces. In 2010, scores of military leaders, including the current president, left the junta and won parliamentary seats in elections marred by fraud. "Because President Thein Sein and all the others changed their clothes, people think they changed their mind-set," Nyi Nyi said. "The army is holding on to power by changing their name."
Myanmar's constitution, written in 2008, reserves a quarter of the legislature for current members of the military and codifies military takeover if events get out of hand. That's exactly how the uprising of 1988 ended.
There's growing unrest today, in the form of ethnic conflict. Anti-Muslim violence began to flare last year in the country's west and has spread in recent months to its heartland. The violence has left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. Nyi Nyi says he wonders about the military’s role in fomenting it. "They created the chaos in 1988. Right now they create ethnic conflict," he said.
Some international human-rights groupsshare Nyi Nyi's view, holding the government partly responsible for the growing violence. They argue that security forces have, at the very least, neglected their duty to quell the violence and may have stoked it. (The government denies these charges.) The alleged rationale is the same: Chaos makes a strong military seem more appealing.
A new generation
Anti-Muslim feelings cut across Myanmar society -- a fact we were reminded of when Nyi Nyi and I visited his family. His mother, aunt and cousins share a fifth-floor room on a narrow street in Sanchaung Township, just south of Inya Lake. All these family members were active in 1988. We visited their house to see some mementos from that time.
The four of us spent an hour sifting through white plastic bags of student newspapers, newsletters and announcements of events memorializing activists killed in 1988. As Nyi Nyi and I were preparing to leave, we stopped to examine framed family photographs on the wall. There was one of his parents and one of him and other student activists posing on the border with Thailand soon after they fled. Beside the photos I noticed a sticker with the brightly colored logo of 969, a movement led by Buddhist monks who recently boycotted Muslim-owned stores.
There was nervous laughter, then silence, then we said goodbye. As we walked back down the building's narrow concrete stairway, Nyi Nyi appeared agitated. When people live under totalitarian rule for so long, he said, they start to accept and repeat what authorities put forward, no matter how distorted.
After years spent in jail or in exile, some members of the 1988 movement have, like Nyi Nyi, returned to the country, hoping to reinvigorate their push for democracy and human rights. In early August, the 88 Generation Students Group organized a conference marking the 25th anniversary, calling for modifying the country's constitution, promoting ethnic reconciliation and advancing stronger protections against land grabs. Last week, in his monthly radio address, Thein Sein, who has served as president since 2011, called the protests an important part of the country's history.
Younger activists say they have been inspired by 88 Generation. "They are like a moral ideal for us," says Moe Thway, 32. He's a co-founder of Generation Wave, a group of younger activists in Myanmar. "They show us to love justice and to fight for freedom and to sacrifice our life for the sake of our people's freedom."