“In 1987 I was what was then called a “talks writer” covering Asia for the BBC World Service, headquartered in Bush House in the Strand. It was part of my brief to monitor the TV and radio broadcasts transmitted from Asia, and in the summer of 1987 – after years of virtual silence — strange noises began to emerge from Burma.
In the second week of August General Ne Win who had ruled the country since that rarest of things — a left-wing military coup — admitted in a ten minute national address that mistakes had been made during his 25 years in power. How right he was! 44 million people had been living for a quarter century in what one political commentator described as a fascists’ playground. The latter part of 1987 saw the first stirrings of protests against a series of unpopular economic reforms. These patterns of unrest intensified in 1988, only to be put down with increasing brutality. It was Burma’s fearless students who bore the brunt, just as they had in previous moments of national crisis.
From the vantage point of a young reporter in Bush House, these developments had all the makings of a cracking good story. So when on the 9th of July the Burma Socialist Programme Party as the junta called itself, announced an extraordinary party congress on the 23rd of July, at the urgings of my editor, Nick Nugent, I applied for a week-long tourist visa and headed to Rangoon posing as a backpacker.
The day I arrived, General Ne Win, stunned the world by announcing his resignation and claimed there’d be a new era of multi-party politics and a pluralist economy. I was the only Western journalist in Rangoon so my editors instructed me to break my cover and report openly; on the record. The phone line from my room to the hotel switchboard was broken so I was forced to shout my reports into a handset, just feet from the main lobby of the hotel, which was crawling with military intelligence officers.
But it soon became clear that some in the hotel were on my side. I returned to my room after the first day of reporting to find an anonymous note on my bed. “Be at the entrance of the Sule Pagoda at nine tomorrow” it read. “We have news for you”.
I was there at the appointed hour and ushered into a car which pulled up at speed. We drove for an hour to a secluded safe house in a northern suburb where a group of students waited.
A palpable atmosphere of repression hung thick in the air. Glimmers of fear and terror shone nervously from the sunken eyes of those brutalised students who had seen suffering well beyond their years. I will never forget their bravery. I will forever be humbled by their courage.
As was the practice then, I did interviews first in English and then asked the same questions, recording answers in Burmese, for the Burmese language broadcasts. Knowing that I didn’t speak Burmese, one of the students seized a moment, for which his nation should be profoundly grateful. He slipped into one of his answers that a general strike was planned; “It would start”, he said, “at eight minutes passed eight, on the eighth day, of the eighth month of 1988.”
I of course had no idea that the interview I had just recorded would start a revolution. The cassette tapes were smuggled out of the country in diplomatic bags and sent to Bush House.
After a week of being tailed by ever more menacing intelligence agents, I was advised by the British embassy to leave, before I became the centre of a diplomatic incident.
I duly caught a plane to neighboring Bangladesh and with the assistance of an Arakanese friend in Dhaka who translated for me, I made hours of phone calls to contacts in Burma each day, gathering news and filing dispatches to London which were then beamed back into Burma.
Thanks to those reports, a people starved of news for 25 years were suddenly able to glean what was happening across their own country and a sense of a nationwide protest movement waiting to happen began to take hold in towns and villages across the country. My reports may have been the catalyst of a revolution, but they were by no means its cause, as the generals have often claimed.
The BBC Burmese service, which until that point had been cowed by the junta, suddenly became the single most trusted news source in Burma; there was hardly a person who missed the morning and evening transmissions. So when on the 6th of August the BBC aired my interview with the student detailing the exact minute when the general strike would begin, an entire people instantly had their marching orders. The instruction had gone out on the trusted BBC. It was a broadcast that sealed the fate of a nation.
And sure enough; at eight minutes past eight, on the eighth of the eighth of 1988, the dock workers in Rangoon bravely came out on strike and marched defiantly through the streets. As the days and weeks went by, the demonstrators were joined by all sectors of society, in what soon escalated into a national protest movement against the hated generals, spearheaded by the students who had suffered so appallingly in the first part of the year.
My reports became the Twitter and Facebook of that revolution. But infuriatingly for the generals I was out of their reach – irrepressible and constantly on the airwaves in the national life of a country that was spinning out of their control.
Here, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce to you a man who for me is the unsung hero of the Burmese democracy uprising; indeed he was one of its principal architects. Yet his role has never been recognised. He remains to this day an uncompromising, indefatigable, principled, fearless and indomitable champion of human rights. He was then a 42 year old; a Rangoon lawyer called Nay Min.
Nay Min was a friend of the switchboard operator at the Strand Hotel. She had tipped him off about my presence and it was Nay Min who arranged for me to meet the students, with that mysterious note on my bed. He had been the brains behind the announcement of the precise moment when the general strike would begin and it was Nay Min who I spent most of my time with on the phone from Dhaka.
Many journalists that summer gave up their jobs with officially controlled media outlets and knowing that Nay Min had a hotline to the BBC, they reported to him from across the country, particularly after the general strike had started in earnest; and in time he became my main source, fearlessly risking his life amid the constant threat of arrest and imprisonment. My reports would never have been possible without Nay Min. Yet while I was safely out of Burma, his courage nearly cost him his life as you’ll hear in a moment.
On the 18th of September, Burma’s hopes for democracy, for the time being at least, were brutally shattered. After weeks of peaceful pro-democracy protests, the army opened fire on demonstrators in central Rangoon; and in the weeks that followed hundreds of peaceful protesters were gunned down by the army.
After an extraordinary two months, I returned to Bush House, saddened, sickened and disappointed. Worse was to come. Within weeks Burma’s military intelligence caught up with Nay Min who was arrested and served 16 years in solitary confinement. He was routinely tortured and only just survived on a starvation diet.
Rumors persist to this day that a mole in the BBC, loyal to the regime, had reported Nay Min to the authorities. Remember, this was the Cold War. Bush house was crawling with spies. 1988 was a golden age for the BBC Burmese Service, its popularity has never been greater before or since. But there are many who believe that Nay Min’s arrest rendered 1988 one of the BBC’s darkest hours, about which it has never come clean. However, it has long been my hope that the BBC will one day tell Nay Min’s full story and the people of Burma will give one of the heroes of 1988 the recognition he so fittingly deserves. As for Nay Min, he would be granted honor. But, more important, he would be granted closure.
Cut to July 2013 and by this time I am the head of communications at a United Nations humanitarian agency in the Middle East. An email arrives on my computer in Jerusalem. It purports to be from the 1988 student movement, inviting me back to a silver jubilee commemoration in Rangoon. I write back in disbelief and eventually discover that the invitation is genuine. To my amazement I am granted a visa by the Burmese embassy in Tel Aviv and find myself on a plane to Yangon.
My return was a journey of very mixed emotions. Some of those I’d met and reported on in 1988 had been murdered by the army or brutalised beyond recognition in prison. Many went home from 25 years of incarceration to find families and loved ones no longer there. A whole generation had lost its productive years and yet in many, the spirit of 88 lived on, as they determinedly sought to find a role in Burma’s national transition.
As for Nay Min, he didn’t want to see me. His tormentors in prison had told him it was me that had betrayed him. Eventually I did meet Nay Min and made my peace. Many tears were shed. To this day we email each other. The bond we forged through time and distance endures. Our shared humanity unites us. I will forever be grateful to him, as should Burma.
So what lessons can we, must we, draw from this story? What can we take away from all this suffering and sacrifice? Today, just as in 1988, Burma is on the brink of another defining moment, with a general election this month and tentative ethnic ceasefire agreements in the border areas. As in 1988, Burma’s future is uncertain, with the military determined to maintain its grip on power. Despite the recent opening of the door, the legacies of the past — including decades of ethnic conflict, military government and economic mismanagement — still remain. The road to countrywide reform will be long, and fears continue that the democratic movement will be severely restricted.
Lesson number one: just as in 1988, the role of inspired, brave, determined and educated individuals at every level of society will be crucial to the country’s transition.
Now more than ever, the work of Prospect Burma is needed. The students, schools and alumni that the organisation has supported over the past 25 years are making a real mark on the reform landscape. The challenge for each of us is to redouble these efforts at this crucial time of national self-definition.
Lesson number two: as the events of the past four years have shown, the spirit of change, rooted in the events of 1988 is unstoppable.
The peoples of Burma have demonstrated time and again that they are defining for themselves a dignified and prosperous future by embracing modernity, justice and reform. It would be a mistake to believe that the real moment of reform in Burma has already occurred. Burma is still at the beginning of change — not at an end. And if proof of that were needed, there are still up to a million Burmese people living as refugees or displaced from their homes.
Lesson number three: don’t be lulled into a false sense of optimism that the transition will deliver; and to be clear, it must ultimately deliver for all the peoples of Burma.
As in 1988, progress can be illusory; momentum for change can quickly be set back by a rapacious military elite. In this context, educated people and a functioning civil society are essential to build and support democratic reform; to achieve sustainable progress in such long neglected areas as health, education, the law, media, the environment and the economy. In 1988, the people of Burma, led by the students stood up for democratic change, and a quarter of century later this struggle is still continuing. But now, after too many years of repression and delays, the potential to deliver on these hopes and aspirations has never been greater. It really is in prospect, as Prospect Burma’s name rightly reflects. Over the past 25 years, Prospect Burma has built up a strong educational legacy. But this has only been a beginning, and it is still often a lone voice in promoting educational opportunity for the country’s youth across the board.
Lesson number four: now is the time to recognise and promote the real value of education on a much broader – cross sectoral scale — in a country where it has too long been denied.
This leads immediately to the last lesson that I draw with total conviction from my experiences covering Burma in 1988 and since: our commitment to change, to a belief that the future lies in an educated next generation must be unwavering.
My current job with the largest and oldest UN human development organisation in the Middle East, working with some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged communities in the region has convinced me of the centrality of education in promoting human dignity, delivering security and prosperity for the next generation. In the most pitiful circumstances in the Palestinian camps across
the Middle East, be it amid the merciless civil war in Syria, under blockade and occupation in Gaza and the West Bank or in the squalor of the refugee camps in Lebanon, the message I hear from people on the ground about the primacy of education is a constant refrain.
Education is a passport to dignity. Communities prize its transformative power above all else.
That is the core message of Prospect Burma. That ultimately is central to the mission, the contribution which Prospect Burma is uniquely placed to deliver – education is a passport to dignity, at the individual, the communal and at the national level. And that, is why Prospect Burma is an organization uniquely worthy of your support.” Chris Gunness