In Burma’s capital, Rangoon, golden pagodas glisten in the yellow afternoon sun and only Buddha’s hands cast shadows on the streets, a fitting metaphor for what its people hope is the end of a dark era in this southeast Asian country.
Burma, which is in the midst of sweeping changes, is now embracing the journey to democracy after half a century of military dictatorship. For the first time in 25 years, thousands gathered last week for a public commemoration of a huge people’s uprising against the military junta, marking a new era in the history of the country known as the Golden Land.
Thousands crammed into the Myanmar Convention Center last Thursday to commemorate the 8 August 1988 uprising, when student activists took to the streets calling for an end to the military junta. The popular uprising, joined by men, women and even children, came to a brutal end: more than 3,000 people were killed.
Members of the opposition and ruling parties, returning exiled students, diplomats, local and foreign journalists and Buddhist monks attended the event. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi urged further progress on reconciliation and reforms in a speech to the 5,000 people who gathered for the commemoration, held for the first time since the end of the dictatorship two years ago.
‘National reconciliation is very important,’ said Suu Kyi, clad in a long, bright-red Burmese longyi, a traditional skirt, and top, as she addressed the crowd inside the two-storey centre. Thousands more watched from a large television screen outside.
‘We must not take revenge. Everyone has the responsibility to control his or her anger,’ she continued. Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, is now a Member of Parliament as part of the new era in Burma, which is under a new, quasi-civilian regime that came to power in 2011.
Earlier in the day, democracy campaigners also marched through downtown Rangoon and laid wreaths at the Sule Pagoda in the centre of the city, which was at the heart of the 8 August crackdown, according to a report by Agence France Press.
Toe Zaw Latt, who joined the 1988 uprising and who fled to exile across the Thailand-Burmese border before finally ending up in Australia, is overwhelmed with the sweeping changes in Burma he has seen since his return. ‘I am very excited to see lots of exiled students here. It’s like a reunion,’ says Latt, who is now Bureau Chief of the Democratic Voice of Burma Multimedia Group.
Latt was only 18 years old when he left Burma and joined the armed struggle for five years at the Thai-Burmese border. Now, he carries a Sony camera, continuing to fight for democracy through his work as a journalist. ‘I think it is important to keep people informed,’ he explains.
He is optimistic that genuine reforms will finally happen in Burma, but also acknowledges that the changes are only the beginning. ‘A lot of things are still unchanged, but we are on the right track. This is just the very beginning of the beginning of a new era in [Burma],’ he says.