On 13 March, 1988 Ko Phone maw, a fifth-year student at Rangoon Institute of Technology was killed by government riot police. This could be considered the event which sparked off the historic 1988 pro-democracy uprising. During this uprising, many political leaders remembered Ko Phone Maw’s death, and planned to commemorate the day as Burma Human Rights day.
Aung Myo Min, a human rights activist who was a close friend of Ko Phone Maw, said the day deserved to be named as Human Rights day because the BSPP military-backed government committed many human rights violations over 26 years. People had acquiesced in their oppression because they lacked enough awareness to fight the BSPP government for their rights. However, when people heard Ko Phone Maw had been killed by the BSPP, people got a shock and came to realize the brutality of the government. This increased awareness of the lack of democracy and determined people to fight against for their rights and the event led to the “Four Eights Affair”, which tried to restore democracy, human rights, peace, and justice to Burma. Aung Myo Min also said March 13 is one of the greatest events for the Burmese democracy movement, and is named as a human rights day, but it should not be only related to one student, Ko Phone Maw, who was killed by the government. There were many people who were killed or imprisoned for long-term over human rights, so we should hold Human Rights Day for all those fighting and making sacrifices for democracy and human rights in Burma, both now and in the past. The first Burma Human Rights Day was held in the compound of the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) on the 13th of March, 1989. Many political leaders joined it, including Aung San Suu Kyi, U Nu , U Tin Oo, and U Khin Maung Myint from the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), U Tha Ban, U Thu Wai, etc.
Ko Tate, was one of the members of the organizing committee for Ko Phone Maw’s day. The committee was formed of 13 people including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Ko Aung Pwint (RIT), Saw Win Shein (RIT) and other activists. Ko Tate recalled his experience. He said he is not quite sure whose initiative it was to hold the day. Some people said it was inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, and some said it was motivated by U Nu. During the ceremony, no politician or any student activists declared the day to be Burma Human Rights Day – however, he saw many placards which mentioned “Burma Human Rights Day”. For this reason it can still be considered the first celebration of Burma Human Rights Day.
On that day, many students who planned to join it were detained for a while at the Thamyaing Junction. When some students arrived at RIT and prepared for the commemoration, the RIT complex was enclosed by military trucks which seemed intended to intimidate the people who were coming to join the ceremony. However, the crowd got bigger and the grounds filled with people.
All the participants agreed that the 13th of March, 1988 was the most important day of the “Four Eights Affair”. Although students also resented the government’s irresponsible action of demonetization in 1987, if Ko Phone Maw had not been killed, the 1988 pro-democracy uprising is very unlikely to have happened. Anyhow, the first Burmese Human Rights Day ended successfully.
So far, it is the first and last Burmese Human Rights Day to be held in Burma. Student activists tried to hold a second anniversary of Burmese Human Rights Day, and formed an organizing committee of 13 people including Mar Gi, Kyaw Kyaw Soe, and Mg Mg Kyaw and other students. SLORC took pre-emptive action and arrested many students on the 12th of March, 1990, including Ko Bo Kyi, Toe Kyaw Hlaing , Ko Mya Aye and other students. They were imprisoned for three years, and other students were also arrested.
In Burma, students can’t publicly hold Burmese Human Rights Day, but every 13th of March students put a black piece cloth on their shirt as a symbol of sorrowful memory of Ko Phone Maw’s death. They also distribute leaflets, so as not to forget him as a martyr, and to remind themselves of the fight for human rights, democracy, peace and justice. Burma Human Rights Day is not only observed for the memory of Ko Phone Maw, but also to draw attention to all forms of human rights violation in Burma. It should inspire the fight for human rights regardless of sex, gender, race, status or background, so that our people are treated with human dignity in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Burma Human Rights Day by Myint Zaw
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