YANGON - The events of August 8, 1988 are seared forever in Bo Kyi's mind. Then a final year Burmese literature student at a Yangon university, he was swept up in the mass demonstrations against the brutal and inept military junta that ruled Myanmar, then known as Burma.
He remembers well the generals' brutal response that day and in the days and weeks that followed. He remembers students trying to negotiate with soldiers, begging them not to shoot - "but they did not listen to us". Some soldiers even entered hospitals and shot injured protesters, he said, in the process wounding nurses who were trying to treat them. "At first we thought the soldiers might not hurt us, but they shot us," he said.
In 1988, Myanmar was isolated and impoverished due to decades
of military misrule by the military. When a university student was shot dead by police during a protest following a brawl in a Yangon teashop, students reacted angrily and called for demonstrations.
These quickly gathered momentum and spread across the country, attracting many others who suddenly found an outlet for their grievances. Buddhist monks, civil servants, housewives and others from all walks of life took to the streets alongside the students to protest against corruption, official brutality and the poor economy.
A strike was called for August 8 - 8.8.88 - an auspicious date in the deeply superstitious country. The generals, shaken by the mass demonstrations, responded with brute force. Up to 3,000 people are believed to have died in the crackdown that ensued. Many student leaders were imprisoned, fled to the jungle or went underground.
Now, with democratic reforms gathering pace in Myanmar as it transitions from military to civilian rule, student leaders from that time and civil society activists are gathering in Yangon to commemorate the "silver anniversary" of the uprising.
Around 2,000 people have registered to attend a three-day forum ending on Thursday, the 25th anniversary of 8.8.88. They will attend an exhibition as well as talks and seminars on the future of democracy in Myanmar. The country has been ruled by a nominally civilian government since 2011, although the military still plays a powerful political role. Among the forum's participants is Bo Kyi, who continued to play a leading role in the democracy movement even after he was arrested in 1990 and sentenced to three years in prison.
Following his release, the feared military intelligence asked him to act as an informer and he agreed on two conditions: that the generals released all political prisoners and entered into a dialogue with the country's opposition leader and democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The authorities refused his counteroffer and said he obviously had not learned his lesson. He was sentenced to another five years in prison; like many other political prisoners, he was tortured while in detention. "I was beaten very brutally every day for two weeks," said Bo Kyi, now 49.
After Bo Kyi's release from his second term in 1998, he heard that authorities wanted to arrest him again, so he fled to the border town of Mae Sot in neighboring Thailand. With a group of other exiles he founded the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which kept an up-to-date census of thousands of political prisoners.
It says much about the recent changes in the country that he can now return home without fear of reprisal. He is still based in Thailand but has traveled back and forth regularly since the beginning of the year after his name was removed from a government blacklist.
The failed 8.8.88 uprising "has shaped an entire generation and affected virtually every person in the country", writes editor-in-chief Aung Zaw in this month's Irrawaddy, a newsmagazine dedicated to Myanmar politics and economics. After the 8.8.88 crackdown, the government - fearful of student radicalism - closed the universities and opened new ones on the outskirts of the cities.
"Thus the prisons, home to some of Myanmar's best minds, became in some ways the country's most important centers of learning, while the universities, deprived of decent facilities and properly qualified instructors, became little more than holding centers for a dispossessed generation," Aung Zaw wrote.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released in the past few years as Myanmar opens up. President Thein Sein, on an official visit to London last month, pledged that the remaining political prisoners will be released by the end of the year.
Bo Kyi and other former student activists are optimistic about the country's future prospects but also express caution. He said there are around 120 political prisoners still in jail and another 100 or so awaiting trial, including human rights and environmental activists opposed to state-backed land-grabbing.
"Without creating rule of law, how can we stop torture and how can we stop arbitrary detention?" said Bo Kyi, who says disunity in the government has made it hard for the country to move forward. "These are the main challenges for the [Myanmar] president and his administration."
Joining Bo Kyi at the forum this week is Ye Naing Aung, another former student activist who spent two terms - of six months and three months - in detention for his activism but says he has taken no part in politics since the mid-1990s. However, he was inspired to get involved with the preparations for the anniversary by "the spirit of the 1988 uprising."
"Generally I'm optimistic. The government is trying its best to reform society," said the 51-year-old business consultant. "But in my opinion we need a political consensus among all the political groups... We still need to decide how we will change into a democratic society.
Mark Fenn is a British journalist based in Bangkok.
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)