Seeking Forgiveness in Myanmar, on Anniversary of Uprising

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Aaron Schachter: Another country wrestling with its past is Myanmar, also known as Burma. Commemorations took place today to mark the 25th anniversary of what was supposed to be a peaceful popular uprising. The student led demonstrations were known as 8-8-88, after the date. And today is the first time that it's being openly remembered in Burma.

(Burmese chants)

Activists chanted prayers and laid wreaths in the center of the former capitol, Yangon, to honor the thousands who died when the military crushed the protests. The BBC played a key role in the events of 1988 by broadcasting details of what was going on and what was planned. Christopher Gunness was a BBC correspondent in Burma 25 years ago. He no longer works for the BBC, but returned to Yangon this week on his own.

Christopher Gunness: I remember very clearly the meeting I had with the students in which they told me that the 8-8-88 protests were planned. Indeed, they said that they would happen at exactly eight minutes past eight on the eighth of the 88. The BBC broadcast those interviews on the BBC's Burmese service. So the message was out. And that interview, which was transformative in terms of Burma's modern history. And it was, of course, the students, not the BBC that did that. That stays very strongly in my memory.
I also have a recollection of a very brave Rangoon Yangon lawyer called Nae Min who I met. He was the person who I would say was the real brains, and the real, if you like, the brave spirit, the number one here behind the 88 events. It was Nae Min who had the courage to come and find me, and to start introducing me to people, including those students. And I have wonderful recollections of this extraordinary, well in those days he was 42, but this extraordinarily wise man with gleaming bright eyes who really had the vision to see where Burma was going.
He later reported to me when I was in Bangladesh. Gave extraordinary news, which again, kept the revolution alive because Nae Min was getting news from across the country. And people in the North of Burma, the South, everyone across the country, because of Nae Min's extraordinary reporting in to me, and of course, supplemented with other sources, had a very, very clear idea of what was going on. So there was a general feeling across Burma, because, you know, this was the Twitter and the Facebook of that generation. People began to find out through the BBC what was going on across the country. And so there was a self-perpetuating momentum which built up behind the protests. I remember all that very, very clearly indeed.

Schachter: And it was an incredibly bold thing for Nae Min to do. What has become of him?

Gunness: Nae Min was an incredibly brave man. Today, I actually met him last night and he spent 16 years in prison being brutally beaten up. I mean, the man must be about five feet tall, very slight in the way that, you know, only Burmese can be slight. He was viciously tortured for years on end because he'd given information to the BBC. He's a remarkably forgiving man. I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to come back to Burma was to see him and to beg his forgiveness and ask his apology. Not that I was directly responsible, but the BBC certainly was directly responsible for what happened to him. And, you know, it's because of his report to the BBC that all this took place.
So I was able to come back and find a man who was a, incredibly forgiving in a sort of genuinely Buddhist sense. He was wise beyond belief. And he'd taken 16 years of abuse in the most positive spirit you can imagine. I mean he's truly Mandela-like in the way that he's dealing with all this. And I think that really sets the dynamics for what's happening in Burma because, you know, the students all say, we can forgive but we can't forget. And they will never forget. And I think that's true of Nae Min in particular. He embodies that spirit which I think is gonna have to predominate in this country if the ATA chapter is to be closed and Burma is to move on into what people here see as a hope for a future of prosperity and dignity for all of the people who suffered great injustices at that time.

Schachter: Chris, I was just in Yangon a month ago, and it seemed to me a really exciting place. The country has great potential, though obviously there's still a long way to go with lots of things there. Are you optimistic for the future.

Gunness: I think on balance, yes. I mean, one of the lessons of Burma since 1988 is that you should never trust change because the people in charge can reverse change at the stroke of a pen. So optimism is a, you know, is something which cannot be taken for granted in this place.

Schachter: Christopher Gunness, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

Gunness: Aaron, it's my pleasure. Thank you very much.