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Looking Back
A Democracy Stillborn: RANGOON, SEPTEMBER 1988

The accidental tourist was horrified. Arriving in Burma in April to visit her dying mother, London-based academic Aung San Suu Kyi was confronted by a country in turmoil. Fed up with the iron rule of 26-year-long dictator Ne Win, who had helped transform a democratic and prosperous nation into a Stalinesque economic basketcase, students had begun to fight back. Minor uprisings over the years had been forcefully put down. But this time monks and even government workers joined the students. Suddenly, the entire country was on the verge of anarchy.

As demonstrations spread, the government seemed to bend to the public will. In July Ne Win stepped down, but then installed a hated deputy, Sein Lwin. He imposed martial law the next month, but unrest merely multiplied. On 8/8/88 — now known as Burma's version of the Chinese crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square — a general strike ended just before midnight when soldiers fired on thousands of unarmed protesters. Days later, they killed nurses and doctors treating the wounded. In the confusion, Sein Lwin resigned and was replaced by a civilian, Maung Maung.

Meanwhile, a loose collection of pro-democracy leaders had emerged, among them Suu Kyi. Mindful of her father's role as Burma's independence leader (students hold his photograph, left), Suu Kyi addressed her first gathering of up to 500,000 protesters. But the new hope she fostered died quickly. By Sept. 18, when army chief Gen. Saw Maung declared a military coup and the birth of the State Law and Order Res-toration Council (SLORC), about 8,000 Burmese had been murdered by the state.

Promised multiparty elections finally were held in 1990. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 80% of the vote, despite the fact that she had been placed under house arrest in1989 and disqualified from standing. No matter. The SLORC continued to rule anyway.

The accidental tourist, awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1991, is still in the country of her birth. Determined that her poll victory be recognized, she has rarely been free of house arrest. Burma has been renamed Myanmar. The SLORC has become the State Peace and Development Council. But the generals still rule.

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