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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 25, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Myanmar's 88 Generation comes of age
By Bertil Lintner

Myanmar's military government may have narrowly escaped United Nations Security Council sanction, but it is facing an unprecedented political challenge at home, not by the crippled opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) but by an emerging network of dissidents who refer to themselves as the 88 Generation Students' Group.

Unlike the NLD, the 88 Generation is not a political party, but rather a movement comprising a generation of students who were active during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. The military crushed that movement and later sentenced many of the



demonstrators to prison for various anti-state crimes. Nearly two decades later, many of those activists are now coming of age and in recent months they have launched a series of civil-disobedience campaigns that have openly challenged the ruling junta.

The pro-democracy veterans started to meet and discuss politics in Yangon teashops about two years ago. Many of them had spent long years in prison and were "plucked from their families, from their studies", according to one foreign observer who recently met with the network's members. "At last free, they still live in a kind of captivity, locked out from the universities and colleges which once offered them the promise of relatively rewarding academic careers," he said.

Last August, the 88 Generation informal network was established. Not surprisingly, the group's most prominent leaders were arrested the following month, but in October other members launched a nationwide petition calling for the release of the estimated 1,100 political prisoners - including the detained leaders of the group - and a start to a genuine national-reconciliation process. Dressed symbolically in white, the group's members traveled around the country and by October 23 had collected 535,580 signatures, which were subsequently sent to the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as well as various UN organizations.

In November, the 88 Generation initiated a mass multi-religious prayer campaign. Participants were urged to wear white clothing and hold candlelight vigils in Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim places of worship. Tens of thousands heeded the network's call and offered prayers for a peaceful resolution to Myanmar's political impasse, freedom for all political prisoners, and help for victims of floods that at the time had devastated many areas of the country.

On January 4, Myanmar's Independence Day, the 88 Generation network launched yet another audacious campaign dubbed "Open Heart", entailing a letter-writing campaign encouraging Myanmar citizens across the country to write about their everyday complaints and grievances with military rule. The organizers have said that by February 4, the campaign's scheduled last day, they expect more then 25,000 letters to be sent to SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe.

The SPDC has no doubt been taken aback by these massive, but entirely peaceful, expressions of dissent. The junta has released the five 88 Generation leaders who were arrested in September, an unprecedented response to political dissidence from the historically heavy-handed junta.

Some political analysts read the move as a concession to the movement, but more likely the junta's decision was influenced by an upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, where the junta was keen not to further alienate the grouping's member states with the UN resolution already on the table. Certain ASEAN member states have expressed their concerns about the ruling junta's lack of progress toward a democratic solution to its political crisis, and have privately lamented the frequent international embarrassment Myanmar has caused the grouping since its admission in 1997.

Yet the reason for the reclusive junta's so-far-tepid response to the 88 Generation's activities is still difficult to gauge. One prevailing theory is that the generals sense the new group's moral authority among the public as former longtime political prisoners and fear a popular backlash if they move too aggressively against its senior members. Another interpretation is that the generals are concentrated on building facilities around their new capital at Naypyidaw and as a result have neglected security measures for the old capital, Yangon.

Recent travelers to Yangon suggest that control mechanisms for the old capital appear less effective since the move to Naypyidaw in November 2005. Whatever the case, the dramatic rise of the 88 Generation is bound to complicate the junta's plans to move toward so-called "military democracy", as there is now a credible, albeit amorphous, civilian alternative to the generals' rule.

Moral alternative
The most prominent 88 Generation member is Paw Oo Tun, alias Min Ko Naing, a nom de guerre that translates from the Burmese into "Conqueror of Kings". In August 1988, he was a 26-year-old zoology student who was eloquently addressing tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets of Yangon, or Rangoon as it was then known (the junta officially renamed the capital and the country in 1989). After the military cracked down bloodily on the demonstrations and rounded up

Continued 1 2 


Debating carrots and sticks for Myanmar (Nov 14, '06)

Myanmar shakes Western noose (Nov 3, '06)

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