Twenty years after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Rangoon and other cities in Burma, that nation's military government continues to quash dissent and deny its citizens' fundamental rights. The movement for democratic governance has persevered, however, and deserves the international community's respect and support.
In March 1988, student-led protests began against a junta that had taken power in the early 1960s and whose xenophobic policies had devastating effects on Burma's economy. Despite police and military crackdowns, the demonstrations increased in size over the summer, demanding free elections and an end to autocratic rule. These culminated on August 8, 1988, when hundreds of thousands of Burmese took to the streets.
The government's response this time was swift and brutal. Hundreds of people were gunned down by security forces, bringing the death toll to more than 3,000 over the months of protest. Many of Burma's current leaders held senior positions in the military at the time. After a period of martial law, parliamentary elections were held in 1990 when the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory. The junta refused to honor the results and jailed opposition activists instead.
In a reprise of the 1988 protests last year, the police and military put down peaceful demonstrations by monks and ordinary citizens. At least 30 demonstrators were killed and thousands more arrested.
The United States is steadfast in its call for Burma's leaders to immediately release these and all other political prisoners. The regime also must begin a genuine dialogue with the democracy movement's leaders and ethnic minority leaders on a true transition to democratic government. Improved relations between the two countries depend on the Burmese regime taking credible steps in this direction.