Since the military coup of March 2, 1962, the Burmese armed forces (Tatmadaw) had been holding power in Burma. Under the leadership of General Ne Win (1910-2002) who established a socialist and autarchic military regime, Burma isolated itself from the outside world for almost three decades (1962-1988). But after 25 years of a “Burmese way to socialism”, the country was classified as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries by the United Nations and was on the verge of a socio-economic collapse. When the military government announced a complete demonetization of small bank notes in September 1987, spotted protests broke out in Rangoon. Students unable to pay their university fees (Burma’s economy being mainly a cash one) organized the first demonstrations against the military government since the mid-1970s when student protests were last crushed by the Army and anti-riot police forces between 1974 and 1976. Universities and colleges were thus closed for two months by the military authorities, nipping the social explosion in the bud before the end of 1987.
In March 1988, a new wave of student protests erupted in Rangoon after a young student, Maung Phone Maw, was gunned down by the police the day after a tea-shop brawl near Insein (North of Rangoon) on March 13. One of the instigators of the brawl, son of a local official, was rapidly released to the wrath of students who led in reaction large demonstrations criticizing the government and its one-party apparatus (the Burma Socialist Program Party or BSPP). Gathering thousands of young people, the protestors marched mainly around the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) and Rangoon University, located near Inya Lake. On March 14, the campuses were sealed off by anti-riot forces (Lon Htein, led by General Sein Lwin), raided the following day, and hundreds of students were arrested. On March 16, while marching on Pyay Road, near Inya Lake Embankment, one thousand demonstrators (mainly from Rangoon Arts and Science University) were shot at by Lon Htein battalions that had surrounded them. About 200 students were killed, beaten to death and drowned into the near Inya Lake (the event being now known as the “The White Bridge Incident”). Two days later, after student demonstrations spread throughout the city centre, army troops were brought into town to assist Lon Htein and police forces in order to contain the unrest. Hundreds of protesters were arrested around Sule Paya and the City Hall during this “Black Friday”, as March 18, 1988 had then been then known. Indeed, in a major incident, 41 students died after they suffocated in a jam-packed police van while being transferred to Insein Prison. Again, universities were shut down by the regime to prevent further student gatherings.
When they reopened on June 15, 1988, new waves of protests rapidly broke out. A night curfew was then declared by the Rangoon military authorities and thousands of students were again arrested. On June 21, at Myeinigone Junction, Lon Htein troops threw tear-gas and fired at a small demonstration led by students joined by Buddhist monks. Dozens of dead and injured demonstrators were reported during the incident to which local crowds retaliated by spontaneously killing several policemen who were hunting down students in the narrow streets of Myeinigone blocks. Throughout the country, where Rangoon’s example began to be followed in a wide up-rising against the regime, street protests were equally repressed by police forces.
In face of this social havoc, General Ne Win stepped down on July 23, 1988 and resigned from his function of President of the Republic of Burma and Chairman of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). General Sein Lwin, one of his most loyal second who orchestrated the March and June 1988 bloody crackdowns (gaining there his nickname of “Rangoon’s Butcher”), succeeded him as head of the Burmese state. But social discontent continue to grow in the country and a rumor broadcast by a BBC correspondent announced one of the biggest general strikes ever organized in Burma since colonial times rapidly for August 8, 1988 (or 8-8-88, this date following the 8 noble number being auspicious to Buddhist and Burmese beliefs). Martial law was again declared in Rangoon on August 3 to avoid any further trouble, bringing the Tatmadaw at the forefront of the event.
At 8:00 am on August 8, huge mass rallies began in most of Burma’s cities, gatherings hundreds of thousands people. In Rangoon, demonstrations started near the harbor where dockers and workers began to march towards the city hall. Thousands of students, monks, women, civil servants and even low rank soldiers joined them to meet at Sule Paya and in the surrounding streets. Huge crowds demonstrated peacefully, almost in euphoria throughout the day, with few student leaders delivering speeches and organizing improvised political meetings, initiatives that had been prohibited since 1962. By late afternoon, Brigadier-General Myo Nyunt, who was the Administrator of the Martial Law in Rangoon, ordered the crowd gathered around Sule Paya and Mahabandoola Gardens to disperse while troops from the 22nd Light Infantry Division were brought near the city hall. But people gatherings remained late in the evening, responding to the army warnings by singing the Burmese national anthem. At 11:00 pm, the first army trucks came out from behind the city hall and spread their armed soldiers in the streets. Shootings of demonstrators by troops began just before midnight.