YANGON—For countries emerging from lengthy periods of totalitarian rule, one measure of good democratic health is the extent to which government is willing to acknowledge historic wrongs. The more public and visible the gesture, the thinking goes, the faster the country and its citizens can come to terms with the dark legacies of violence and oppression. This can be as simple and understated as a bronze plaque at the scene of a tragedy or as giant and expensive as an official museum.
The notion of the state taking public ownership of its own shameful misdeeds is based on a civic ethic of truth and reconciliation, a form of accountability designed to encourage healing among the citizenry, make sure the event is never forgotten, and signal that the state has learned from its mistakes. For countries with histories of genocide, it’s almost impossible not to own up. Germany and Cambodia are two of the most obvious examples. In the former, Holocaust memorials are everywhere; in the latter, Killing Fields exhibitions expose a state death machine in all its horror.
For a country like Myanmar, however, the notion of memorializing historic wrongs is somewhat more complicated. To begin with, the people in charge have never hesitated to point out wrongs committed by the British colonial occupiers and the Japanese invaders during World War II. But when it comes to the sins of independent Burma, especially since the military coup of 1962, that’s a different story. To offer one example: how would one attempt to acknowledge the terrorizing of ethnic groups in the border areas since the coup? Not even the current government is about to own up to the army’s culture of entitlement when it comes to rape and murder, child labour, torture, forced evacuations, et cetera—especially when such evils still occur today. Then there are the other, well-documented human rights abuses against pro-democracy activists, Burman majority or otherwise.
The likelihood of today’s quasi-civilian government expressing regret for the many atrocities of the Ne Win, SLORC, and SPDC military dictatorships is slim and nil. The army’s continuing pervasive influence over all areas of public life (to say nothing of its psychological intrusions on private life) makes that impossible while many of the perpetrators are still alive. It was only three years ago, after all, that Senior General Than Shwe gave up his dictator’s seat to allow elections. It is widely believed that one condition for the transition to democracy was a guarantee from regime opponents that there would be no reprisals, no truth and reconciliation, no UN commissions of inquiry into all the ugliness. Public monuments to the Tatmadaw’s atrocities would flout such a deal by shaming some of the same people who traded in their military uniforms for business suits and are now sitting in the parliament.
Then there’s the problem of logistics. Another reason you won’t see any memorials to national tragedy here, especially in Yangon, is the simple fact that there have been too many of these atrocities to count. This city has so many ghosts, so many scenes of epic violence or injustice worthy of acknowledgement, that one would not know where to begin placing plaques. It would take a research grant to uncover and account for every historic wrong. But I can tell you about a few of these places, each one haunting in its own way, that I think are worthy of mention.
If you walk anywhere downtown, you will pass through areas where thousands died in 1988 and many more were killed During the Saffron Revolution in 2007. One spot on Sule Pagoda Road, just outside Trader’s Hotel (which recently suffered a bomb attack by rogue elements of the Karen National Union trying to derail national ceasefire talks) is especially poignant for journalists: it’s where Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai was shot dead at point blank range while covering the monk protests. Kenji’s death shocked many because foreigners were so rarely targeted.
A couple of places in the neighbourhood where I live deserve a plaque or a statue. A high school not far from my apartment was where several schoolgirls were knocked down and killed in 2007, apparently by accident: they just happened to be crossing the street moments before army trucks came racing through the area to contain some other situation. And at the office where I work, the back window of the sixth floor looks out onto Kyaikkasan Playground. In 1974 this rundown, poorly trimmed grass field was the proud location of a horse racing course—and the scene of the infamous U Thant riots.
Late that year, when the revered former UN secretary-general died and his body was flown home, dictator Ne Win refused to build a mausoleum and tomb or hold a state funeral. On December 5, 1974, the army decided to hold a brief coffin viewing at the racecourse just before U Thant’s burial. Students were outraged and decided to steal the coffin. Breaking through the barriers, they launched a relentless assault on security forces guarding the coffin, bayoneting some of them to death with detached fence poles before wrestling the coffin away and marching it off to the Rangoon University campus. Today, Kyaikkasan is a fitness facility for students. The original racecourse fencing has all come down, and there appear to be only a few traces of the old track (a wooden scoreboard frame?) remaining. Gazing down on the green from my office, I shudder at the mayhem that occurred on that lawn, a riot that triggered events leading to a slaughter of the students a week later.
None of these places moves one quite so profoundly, however, as a short strip of land on the west bank of Inya Lake, scene of the infamous “White Bridge” massacre of spring 1988. After all I had read about what had happened there, it was disorienting to visit the spot in 2013 and find that the bridge students had run across no longer existed and that the street dividing the lake property from the barrier walls in front of private homes had been renamed “Pyay Road” from “Prome Road.” After all those years of totalitarian rule, the army had gotten pretty good at suppressing information and inhibiting memory: the best way to trip up researchers is to change the names of townships and streets. In the case of the now vanished White Bridge (nicknamed the Red Bridge, for all the bloodshed there), it’s no wonder the government would want people to forget what had happened.
On March 16, 1988, a group of students from Rangoon Arts and Sciences University organized a march to the Rangoon Institute of Technology to express solidarity with RIT students after one of their own had been killed by police three days earlier. When the march arrived at this narrow stretch of road next to Inya Lake, the army had blocked it off at one end. Minutes later, the Lon Htein riot police came in from the rear, trapping the students. There was nowhere to flee to but the lake. Girls were dragged away and gang raped before being clubbed to death. Others died in the lake.
Surveying the grounds today, one can see how terrifying that episode must have been; one can imagine running up the 10-metre embankment on its 25-degree angle wearing flip-flops, hoping to make it to the lake before being clubbed on the back of the head. Those who reached the lake weren’t a lot more fortunate than those who didn’t: police simply followed them up the hill and into the water. Many students were caught as they tried to swim away and were then either flogged to death with truncheons or drowned by having their heads pushed under water. Several dozen others who escaped the beatings were arrested and packed into police vans like sardines. Among them, forty-one died of suffocation while their van sat parked outside Insein Prison under the mid-day sun.
Twenty-five years later, the scene of that gruesome event is a sleepy urban oasis populated mainly by young lovers enjoying a little romance. On the Sunday afternoon I visited, a cluster of white sailboats circled each other at mid-lake, like moths above a campfire. On the shoreline pathway that neatly divides Inya Lake from the hillside, one or two joggers interrupted the casual rhythm of a lazy weekend afternoon. Food vendors quietly went about their business as young couples on the breakwater sat huddled under their umbrellas.
Most of these people were not even born in 1988, but were now about the same age as the students who had died here. Did they know what had happened on this very spot, a quarter of a century ago, to kids just like them? Maybe. Their parents might have told them. But then again, maybe not. In a country with so many ghosts, it’s a lot easier—and better for one’s sanity—just to “move on” without having to confront those ghosts head on, again and again.