Today is the 25th anniversary of the most important uprising you’ve never heard of

August 8, 2013

In a photo taken Aug. 26, 1988, Burmese democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a pro-democracy rally in Yangon. (AFP/Getty Images)

Five years ago, a Burmese activist -- then operating under a pseudonym as Myat Min, as the generals still held all power -- told the New Yorker's George Packer about what he had seen in 1988. That summer, hundreds of thousands of protesters had flooded into Rangoon and other cities to demand an end to military rule. Myat Min's brother had joined them. The protests culminated Aug. 8, 1988, with a general strike and, later in the day, a military crackdown that killed at least 3,000 civilians. The troops had been ordered not to fire even one shot into the air.

In the following weeks, as Burma (now also known as Myanmar) dissolved into violence and chaos, Myat Min's father would sneak out of their home to look for his missing son. He never found him, but one day saw a mob of protesters chanting the word "democracy" and carrying spikes that bore the severed heads of suspected government informers, burned "charcoal black." Myat Min's father expressed hope that the United States would soon liberate his country and allow democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, then an unofficial leader of the protest movement, to take power herself. Instead, one group of generals replaced another in a coup that September, troops brutally suppressed the protests, and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.

The events of August and September 1988 set up many of the tensions in Burmese politics and society that made it one of the last few pariah states on earth. It wasn't until the country finally began opening to the world, just two years ago, that these tensions have started to unwind.

We don't discuss Burma's Aug. 8, 1988, uprising much, but we should. The movement known in Burma as 8888 when written or "four eights" when spoken -- numbers are given big significance in the country -- ended up shaping the next quarter-century for the nation, now with 60 million inhabitants, and its legacy will likely play a significant role in the following quarter-century or more.

The 8888 uprising wasn't just a failed uprising and bloody crackdown. As with the student protests and crackdowns the next year in China, it so shook the country that the entire social contract seemed to be rewritten from scratch. As if to signify either a fresh start or almost admit how badly the country's sense of itself had been damaged, the generals even changed the nation's name from Burma to Myanmar. The move, like the government that enforced it, was so controversial that many Burmese, in part as a lingering protest against the 1988 crackdown and including Aung San Suu Kyi, still refuse to use the new name.

Many of the changes that 8888 brought about led directly to the opening, finally, starting in 2011. The new military regime was oppressive, paranoid and self-isolating in how it treated its own citizens and the outside world, in large part because of the chaos in 1988 that had spawned it. But the government's nature and practices also left it near-globally despised and deeply reliant on China, which treated it as a de facto client state until the day that the regime apparently decided it could no longer withstand the internal failures and external pressures that had been mounting since its September 1988 inception.

Now things are changing: Dissent is allowed once more, the generals are reducing their own power willingly, the state is no longer a pariah, and Aung San Suu Kyi is free. She won a seat in parliament last year and wants to run for president in Burma's 2015 elections. But the legacy of 8888 hangs over the country, and not just because of its role in shaping where it is today. Many can remember the events of that summer or know someone who was killed. But Burmese are finally getting a chance to publicly reconcile with their history.

The BBC visited the first public commemoration of the uprising in Rangoon, where photos were displayed and middle-aged one-time radicals milled around warily. One man looked over a photo, long forbidden in Burma but famous in the rest of the world, of himself, 25 years earlier to the day, carrying a 16-year-old girl who had been shot three times by the army and died in his arms. "We sacrificed blood and sweat for that revolution, for democracy," he told the BBC. "This girl also sacrificed herself. But at least she's remembered. Many other people who died are not remembered."

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Max Fisher · August 8, 2013