Memory of Sacrifice: Memory, Justice and the Saffron Revolution

Aileen Thomson reflects on commemorations of the pro-democracy struggle.

[This week’s posts on Tea Circle represent the start of our forum on the “Saffron Revolution,” during which we will feature submissions by those analyzing, debating, and reflecting upon the impact of Myanmar’s 2007 demonstrations, 10 years on. We will continue to accept submissions through the coming weeks, so if you would like to add your voice, whether in your own post or in the form of a response to another, please see our Call for Submissions or write to our editors at: editor@teacircleoxford.com.]

Over the past few years, anniversaries of major events in the Myanmar pro-democracy movement, including the Saffron Revolution, are commemorated with the laying of memorial wreaths for those who were killed, speeches by movement leaders about the continuing struggle, and retrospective pieces in the media reflecting on how far the country has come, and how far there is yet to go.

Well-known leaders of the democracy movement are lauded, but the lesser-known, ordinary laypeople and monks continue to suffer the impacts of their involvement in protests like the Saffron Revolution. Their time in prison and association with the then-banned organizations continues to stigmatize them and their families, preventing them from full participation in society. Now that leaders of the democracy movement are leading the government, they should make clear that those who fought for democracy are to be celebrated, not shunned, and take steps to enable their full participation in the social, economic and political life of the country.

To the puzzlement of many outside observers, memorial events are relatively devoid of outrage and demands for justice, despite the state’s brutal response to the protests. The rhetoric focuses on the bravery and sacrifice of the protesters and activists, not the horrific acts committed by those in power. Some have attributed this to a Buddhist tendency toward forgiveness, and others to a calculated political maneuvering by activists still engaged in the day-to-day struggles to consolidate and improve democracy. While both are likely factors in many cases, there is more nuance in this rhetoric.

When it comes to justice for those killed, injured, tortured and detained in the Saffron Revolution, the way the events are remembered is instructive. By their words and actions, monks and lay members of the pro-democracy movement remember their fallen colleagues as heroes who gave of themselves for the betterment of the country, not as helpless victims of a brutal regime. For many, to focus on their victimhood is to belittle their bravery in the face of known risks, to retroactively invalidate their agency and the choices they made.

These dynamics should not be seen as a rejection of justice, but as setting forth a framework within which demands for justice should be understood. Official recognition and commemoration, done well, may go a long way to providing justice for victims of political imprisonment and of violence against protesters, addressing some of the consequences of the violations and providing a remedy to the victims. If former political prisoners and other pro-democracy activists are celebrated publicly as heroes rather than ostracized as criminals, perhaps they will have an easier time reintegrating into their communities, finding employment and restoring family ties.

For the most impact, recognition must come from the government, a more authoritative, wide-reaching source than a small group of activists holding ceremonies on anniversaries. Acknowledgment of wrongful imprisonment and recognition of activists’ contribution to the society should be done on an individual basis, in a way that makes it clear to families, communities and future employers that there should be no obstacle to that person’s full participation in the social, economic and political life of the country. Meaningful recognition and commemoration should also include expunging criminal records, removing notations on identity cards, restoring revoked professional licenses, and restoring citizenship and related rights to those who are still in exile.

This is not to say that those who suffered do not deserve justice, whether in the form of reparation, truth, criminal justice or some combination of those objectives. In fact, when commemorating the Saffron Revolution, many have called for assistance to survivors, an apology from the government, and institutional reform to prevent recurrence. Some have demanded prosecution of those who ordered the crackdown. However, at least at this historical moment, the focus is on recognition and commemoration – as heroes of the democracy movement who unjustly but bravely suffered for the good of the country.

Thousands of people throughout Myanmar made incredible sacrifices to move the country towards democracy. They braved the streets in demonstrations, spread information obtained from banned sources, rallied support for the movement’s leadership, and did millions of other everyday acts of resistance. For that, they have suffered imprisonment, exile, stigmatization, unemployment and have been left otherwise unable to fully participate in their society and enjoy the gains of their struggle. Now that the leaders of that movement have power, now that the country is, in fact, moving slowly towards democracy, those who helped make that happen should be able to enjoy the benefits as well.

Aileen Thomson is an independent expert on justice and human rights with a particular focus on transitional justice in Asia. She was previously the Head of Office for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Myanmar and Nepal. She has a J.D. (law) and a M.A. (international affairs) from the American University in Washington, D.C.