88 Generation Activists In Vogue in Myanmar

Posted on September 4, 2012


Myanmar President Thein Sein.

For years they were arch-enemies of Myanmar’s oppressive military regime, targeted as much if not by more by military leaders than Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy political party.

But these days, members of the “88 Generation” movement — composed of one-time student leaders whose 1988 protests nearly toppled the Myanmar junta — are in fashion in Naypyitaw, where they are increasingly being asked to weigh in on policy and advise government leaders and former military bosses on how to further reform the country.

The rapprochement took a major symbolic step forward in early August, on the eve of the 24th anniversary of the 1988 protests, when Myanmar President Thein Sein sent two of his cabinet ministers to meet with 88 Generation leaders in Mandalay as the activists gathered to commemorate the failed uprising of their youths. The ministers gave the activists a donation of 1 million kyats, or roughly US$1,100.

That gesture came after a series of meetings between 88 Generation leaders–many of whom were recently freed from prison after years behind bars, sometimes in solitary confinement–and top government officials.

In one sit-down earlier this year, 88 Generation leaders met with Aung Min, now a cabinet minister in President Thein Sein’s office who has led the president’s efforts to resolve conflicts with armed minority groups, to discuss ethnic divides.

In July, the activists met Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, who is considered one of Myanmar’s most powerful figures, in a session 88 Generation leaders said was designed to build mutual trust. On August 7, the activists met again with Aung Min as well as Soe Thein, a former industry minister who is now also attached to the president’s office and considered another rising star in Myanmar politics.

In mid-August, Myanmar’s government said it was including one 88 Generation leader, Ko Ko Gyi, on a 27-member national commission to investigate recent communal violence involving Rohingya Muslims in Western Myanmar, which left at least 83 people dead when tensions intensified in June.
Leaders from the 88 Generation have themselves pushed for a more active public role, offering themselves earlier this year as mediators between Naypyitaw and the Kachin Independence Organisation, which represents ethnic-Kachin residents who are battling government forces for more sovereignty.

In March, the 88 Generation formed an election watchdog network with other civil society groups to monitor the country’s April 1 by-elections; it later released an interim report saying it was satisfied with the elections but listed a number of areas that needed improvement.

When the Western Myanmar violence flared in June, 88 Generation leaders visited the state to observe conditions. Now, its leaders are touring the country this month to meet with recently-released political prisoners.

Analysts say the re-emergence of 88 Generation figures as political players has underscored how Myanmar’s opposition movement runs much deeper and broader than just Ms. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which has dominated headlines because of Ms. Suu Kyi’s global name recognition. It’s also an indication of how rapidly the country is changing after a new government began launching wide-ranging reforms last year aimed at turning the page on decades of military rule, which has given a wide array of former enemies of the state room to operate and pursue their agendas.

“Within the opposition, the second liners are clearly the 88 Generation leaders. They are the ones who are actually going out to the ground, meeting with people. They are heavily involved in social enterprise activities,” said Bridget Welsh, a professor at Singapore Management University, at a roundtable conference on Myanmar in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Some Yangon residents have said privately they believe Naypyitaw is looking to elevate the status of the 88 Generation in part to counter-balance the widening role of the NLD, which now has several dozen members in parliament, and Ms. Suu Kyi, who at times has appeared to upstage President Thein Sein with high-profile trips to Bangkok and Europe. Opposition groups in Myanmar have a long history of infighting, which in past years made it easier for Myanmar’s previous military regime to divide the groups to keep them marginalized.

Government officials dismiss suggestions that the president is now favoring the 88 Generation group. His supporters say he simply wants to promote national reconciliation for everyone, and has met with all sorts of political groups recently.

“So it is not so strange for his acts to be favorable towards some of those 88 Generation leaders,” said Ko Ko Hlaing, a presidential advisor, in an email. It’s “not only the 88 Generation–the government is trying to reach all stakeholders,” said Mr Ye Htut, deputy minister of the Ministry of Information, in an email.

Leaders from the 88 Generation say they believe President Thein Sein–himself a former military officer–is sincere about trying to improve the country, and that they can keep working with him so long as he continues down the road of reform. They say they have decided to work with the government rather than attacking it because they have already seen numerous positive changes this year, and believe key officials including also Aung Min and Soe Thein appear to be trying to bring about more democracy. They continue to criticize some ministers who they believe aren’t moving fast enough, though, and indicate they don’t believe this will upset Mr. Thein Sein.

The group doesn’t have a formal structure or official president, though government officials and others generally recognize Min Ko Naing–a former protest organizer whose name means “Conqueror of Kings”–as the main leader, and Ko Ko Gyi as the deputy leader. Among the group’s main objectives is to help expand civil society organizations so that local people have more power to influence the way their country is run.

Certainly their latest steps are seen as a big departure from past years, when members such as Min Ko Naing played a part not only in organizing the 1988 rallies but also helped support the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007, when monk-led protests swept across Yangon before they were brutally suppressed by the military.

Analysts say that it is highly probable the 88 Generation will form its own political party eventually instead of joining the NLD, though it’s not entirely clear yet how the group’s policies would deviate from those of the NLD. Some Myanmar residents and experts have criticized the NLD for lacking concrete policy positions; NLD officials say they are working to promote more rule of law and democratic freedom and are working hard to get up to speed on policy issues after years of persecution by the government.

Ko Ko Gyi says his group hasn’t decided on whether to form a party, though he doesn’t rule out–nor does he rule out someday joining the NLD. “It is one way of our thinking,” he said.

Either way, it’s looking increasingly likely Generation 88 members will play some kind of important role in the country’s next major vote in 2015, which Western governments and investors will be watching closely since it could result in an opposition-led government if the polls are free and fair. Among the key questions will be whether 88 Generation members can get along with the NLD–and keep maintaining favor in Naypyitaw.

“I think they will definitely participate in the elections, but how they do will depend on what happens in the next few years,” said Ms. Welsh in an interview on the sidelines of the recent conference in Kuala Lumpur.