Myanmar’s 1988 Generation Leaders Are Lost in Motion

During the period between the 1988 Uprising in Burma and the 2007 Saffron uprising, thousands of Burmese children, men and women were imprisoned. Among them was the quite famous core group of political prisoners known to all as the leaders of the 1988 Uprising. At the time, they were not really the leaders of the uprising, but they were surreptitiously thrust into the limelight by virtue of having virtue – they stood on stage at the height of the protests and announced to all who they were.

While imprisoned they became more famous and their hopes and dreams were uplifted upon release from prison before the 2007 Saffron Uprising. Before Saffron, they unified to create a quasi-political faction that mirrored the goals of Aung San Suu Kyi and the national League for Democracy and they once again took the lead during the Saffron Uprising as a moral force for freedom. Political and social freedom was their unifying goal and those with differences set them aside for the sake of opposing the dictatorship that created hellish lives for millions of people in Burma, in refugee camps in countries around Burma, and for Burmese in exile abroad.

Generally, the famous and less famous leaders of the 88 Generation stuck together and supported one another and each other’s families and friends. While some were from wealthy families, most were not. The number of ex-political prisoners in Myanmar today is staggering, and there is even a hierarchy created as to the definition of what constitutes having been a political prisoner. While some people believe that anyone held in prison for a number of weeks, months or years is a political prisoner, for sake of benefit, some official 1988 Generation organizations fail to recognize younger people from the 1990s and later who were imprisoned and released after several months no matter even if they were brutally treated or even tortured while incarcerated.

Recent events in Burma have lifted up the images and statures and lifestyles of many of the more famous 88 Generation leaders. Many of them have been given awards in far off lands, received monetary awards, hold art exhibits and rake in money from sales, participated in exchange programs and received scholarships, all for the purpose of western countries institutionalizing them into prescribing to western neo-liberal ideas. After all, if Myanmar is to really change, there can be no pesky nationalistic uprisings led by famous once-rebellious leaders of generations past. Today’s protests in Myanmar are mainly led by national nobodies in rural areas over land seizures and on occasion in cities where they get more attention. However, such modern uprisings are small in comparison to the past nation-changing events of 1988 and Saffron in 2007.

But today, as the 88 Generation leaders move into their later years in life, many still have political ambitions, some have business ventures and others just want to be left alone. The more famous 88’s do on occasion appear publicly for a variety of causes.

Undoubtedly, the 2015 national elections, which could result in Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president of Myanmar, the 88 Generation leaders still involved in politics will probably have an opportunity to make their mark yet again on the troubled political history of Myanmar. I will, however, disregard their words and promises as hollow and empty as they have recently proven themselves as empty shelves and cheap trinkets as one might see in a poor village market where people no longer shop.

Recently a woman, with a son from the 88 Generation who’s still in exile due to the current governments unwillingness to issue him a passport and assurances that he could safely return home to Myanmar, went under the knife for a life threatening non-cancerous brain tumor. This is an elderly woman whose husband died long ago. She was once considered so venerated and respectable enough by the famous 88 generation leaders, who called her Aunty, that shortly before they were arrested after the 2007 Saffron Uprising they gathered together and visited her in her home to pay homage and respect to her. Her son, who had spent fourteen years in prison, was then sought after by the government and marked for death on sight, was also one of them – an 88 Generation leader caught up in the turmoil of Saffron. Luckily he absconded to the Thai border and entered a refugee camp and was then quickly given asylum abroad by a western government where he lives today.

During their trip to her home to pay homage and respect they thanked her for her protection and for risking her life and those of her daughters for having supported the ex-political prisoners with donations and jail visits, hiding them in her home when they were absconding, and giving any money she could to family members of political prisoners during times of sickness or other need. While her husband was alive her family was prosperous and generous to a fault. Though she was not unique in this regard as many, many Burmese people did such brave things in support of those who were arrested for trying to free Burma. Yet, today, she lives day to day without much income and with no prospects for much more than simple survival.

What made her unique was that her son was one of the least known but most influential 88 Generation leaders. He hated the limelight and never sought recognition and he was usually deep underground. But, nevertheless, he’s still prominent enough today to have been invited to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sien during their famous trips to western countries in 2012.

This brave woman was dying in front of the eyes of her daughters and her grandchildren. They all lived together in one bare and simple flat, scraping by each month with just enough money to buy food and some occasional treats but not with enough money to even buy a cheap cooling fan to comfort them during the hottest days of the hot season when they hunkered down with bamboo fans sweating through the days and nights in a tropical malaise.

Myanmar’s health care system is pay-as-you go. Or, as in the case of Aunty, pay-OR-you-go. Her operation was to cost over four thousand U.S. dollars, or roughly, four million Burmese Kyat, which is a phenomenal sum for most people in Myanmar. She was collapsing more often during the previous months of August and September until finally her doctor said she would suffer then die without the operation. Even then, he did not guarantee one hundred percent survival with the operation.

As word got around to the family and friends of Aunty that she was dying and in urgent need of life saving surgery, some of the famous 1988 Generation leaders telephoned the family to pledge support and to help raise funds. They then made the appointment for surgery since they were reassured by the promises of help from so many of the 88 Generation leaders. Other family members pitched in with small amounts of money they mustered together and their hopes also soared because of the unsolicited incoming phone calls and pledges from the 88 Generation leaders.

While in the hospital awaiting surgery, the 88 Generation leaders never showed up or even called again to assure the family of their donations and pledges. Encouraged by some to act, a dutiful daughter made the very difficult phone calls to all of them to ask for their help. Not one of them answered their phones or returned messages left over a several day period. The operation was postponed because the family didn’t have the upfront money to pay for the operation, about two thousand five hundred dollars. The family was losing hope and also beginning to wonder if they should take their mother home to die since the hospital chargers were adding up day to day and there was still no money to pay for the operation.

It seemed hopeless again, yet the daughter kept calling the 88 Generation leaders who promised to help and she left messages for them with as many people as she could think of. Everyone knew about Aunty’s condition. Aunty, in her own painful way, now partially paralyzed on one side of her face, smiled to her daughters and she thanked them for trying to save her on the night they’d decided to give up hope and return home for the end of her life. Suddenly a family member who was good friends with a former teacher from a western country was given the money to cover the cost of the operation. The teacher knew the family and the brother in exile. It wasn’t a loan but instead a gift for the sake of loving kindness and nothing more.

The next evening Aunty went into the operating room, the former teacher who was at the time in Myanmar on vacation left the country, and ten hours later Aunty emerged from the operation. The operation was a complete success and she is even walking again today. Walking was something she hadn’t done in over one year due to the growth of her tumor. With her facial paralyses gone her smile is wide and cheerful. As her family gathered together recently on the full Moon of Thadingyut, where family members gather to pay homage to all of the generations of mothers in the family, no one smiled brighter than Aunty and her daughters.

Absent from their thoughts were the 1988 Generation leaders whose once promising words now meant nothing. They are long forgotten and out of their lives. The failure of those former 88 Generation leaders is not that they failed Aunty. Aunty or her family never asked for their help. Their collective failure is that they went out of their way to call and offer the assistance and then failed to deliver. Not one of them even returned a phone call or has since called to ask about Aunty’s health or wellbeing.

The 1988 Generation leaders, many of whom are not part of this story, have ambitions to create a political force in Myanmar. But it seems some of the most important people in that so-called force have a very short memory. They may go on to win some seats in parliament, or become even more famous for their poetry, art and speeches, but in truth, they are as devoid of conviction as any typical politician in any country on the planet. Their actions speak louder than words and their words, once with impact and meaning, now mean nothing – at least to those who know them well.

I choose not to name anyone for the sake of the family and their wishes to remain unknown.

Ko Tha Dja has worked for over five years in both Thailand and Burma on issues of education and refugee resettlement. Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.