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25 years after unrest, Myanmar begins to cope

Friday - 8/9/2013, 4:02am  ET

In this Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 photo, Win Kyu, left, and his wife Khin Htay Win hold a portrait of their 16-year-old daughter Win Maw Oo, who was killed during pro-democracy protests brutally crushed by Myanmar's military 25 years ago, in their house in Yangon, Myanmar. Behind them, a photo that has come to symbolize the defeat of the 1988 uprising shows the badly injured schoolgirl as two brave young doctors tried unsuccessfully to save her life. No government officials have ever been held accountable for the crackdown that left more than 3,000 people dead. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Twenty-five years later, you can still see the fear in the eyes of the doctors -- two young men carrying a schoolgirl, her blouse drenched in blood, through streets where soldiers were brutally crushing pro-democracy protests.

The photograph, thrust to prominence when it ran on the cover of Newsweek, came to symbolize the defeat of a 1988 uprising in the nation then called Burma. The revolt's end cemented the power of the military, sent thousands of activists to prison and helped bring a future Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, to prominence.

Only now, a generation after the events of the day known as "8.8.88," is Win Zaw beginning to talk about it all.

He is the doctor in the back of the scene, his glasses slipping down his nose as he struggles to carry the bloody girl. Today, two years after Myanmar's military junta handed over power to a quasi-civilian government, he still hesitates to summon that long-ago day. And for many people in Myanmar, their own painful history remains little more than a whisper.

"The door is only open a little bit," says Win, now 48, taking long pauses as he tries to find the right words. "I want to talk, for the sake of history, and all those who died. In my heart, I feel like this is the right time. But still I feel insecure."

It is a story from so many nations that have struggled with the aftermaths of their own horrors. When is the right time to push long-hidden conversations into the open, to deal with the past, to cope?

Argentina faced this in the years after the Dirty War of the 1970s, when the nation tried to move past decades of military oppression. It happened in Cambodia, where the savagery of Pol Pot's regime trained an entire nation to remain silent.

It has happened repeatedly in modern China, where the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown remains a largely forbidden topic, and where even the half-century-old historical realities of the "Great Leap Forward" -- Mao Zedong's disastrous policies that led to widespread famine and the deaths of tens of millions in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- have come into the open only recently.

"We avoided even making reference to it," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who was born and raised in China. "There's still a constant tug of war, between the censors and the people who want to tell the truth ... Subtly, gradually, though, this is beginning to change."

When change does come, though, where does it come from? How do fear and silence eventually get out of the way so that a country can openly discuss its own history?

Some of it is simply the power of time. Powerful politicians die. History's traumatic events are eclipsed by more recent traumas. Small steps toward truth cascade into more. Eventually, details begin to emerge.

The truth about famine, for example, had long been known in rough outlines outside China but was known inside the country by only the political elite and a handful of scholars. In recent years, even the government has begun to acknowledge that Mao's policies were partly to blame.

Myanmar, like China, is a nation where dictatorial rule has become less harsh, though it remains far from truly democratic. And Myanmar's history has bred generations of pessimists.

After Gen. Ne Win seized control in a 1962 coup it went from being one of Asia's wealthiest nations to one of the world's poorest. Resentment over Ne Win's corrupt and inefficient policies began to grow in 1987 and simmered until Aug. 8, 1988, when a nationwide strike led to widespread protests and quick military repression. A civilian president, named amid the bloodshed, lasted less than a month before being ousted in a Sept. 18 coup.

No government officials have ever been held accountable for the violence, which left an estimated 3,000 people dead.

On Thursday, thousands of people gathered for speeches, exhibitions and marches to remember the 1988 uprising. In Yangon, about 150 peaceful marchers pushed past police and local authorities who demanded they stop. Just a couple years ago, confrontations like that would almost certainly have ended in violence. On Thursday, though, the marchers simply continued walking.

"I was only 11 years old when the '88 event happened, and I don't remember much except that people shouted 'Our Cause!'" said Aung Thaw, a 36-year-old computer salesman. He said he joined the demonstration because "I wanted to salute those who had courageously taken part in the historic movement."

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