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Remembering 8-8-88

Twenty years ago this month, Ngun Cung "Andrew" Lian faced seven armed Burmese soldiers in his home town, Matupi, a small outpost in Western Burma.

Twenty years ago this month, Ngun Cung "Andrew" Lian faced seven armed Burmese soldiers in his home town, Matupi, a small outpost in Western Burma.

Massive protests had swelled up throughout the country on Aug. 8, 1988, but being in a remote location, Lian and his fellow citizens didn't get the news until a day later.

"All we had was a telegraph (machine) and the BBC and VOA," Lian, now a Research Fellow with the Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies at the Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington, said recently.

History now records those events of 20 years ago as 8-8-88. What began as a small uprising morphed into a nationwide movement that ended - at the hands of the military regime - with the deaths of thousands of protestors. On the 20th anniversary of one of the biggest nationwide protest movements, Lian still has hope that his former country will one day see the light of democracy. "I very much have more optimism today than I did 10 or 20 years ago," Lian said.

The events are etched well into Lian's memory, but he keeps a small blue diary that recorded his thoughts back then to help fill in the details. In Matupi, Lian and some 2,500 others rallied to show their dissatisfaction with the military regime of General Ne Win.

There were only seven Burmese soldiers to quell the uprising. Lian and others took control of a local government-owned building a few days after Aug. 9, but eventually handed the facility back to the regime. Though there were only seven officers in town, Lian knew one thing: "There would be more," he said.

The volatility of the situation continued through August. Flipping through his diary, Lian stops on the page for Aug. 23. That's when he and others came face-to-face with armed Burmese soldiers trying to stabilize the protests. "It was amazing no one was injured," Lian said, reliving the moment he thought his life was over.

"The soldiers fired around 100 rounds. I was standing in front of a group of primary students. Then I felt it. I'm being shot! I'm going to die! But there's no blood. I thought, 'Am I alive or dead?'"

The soldiers had fired their weapons, but aimed them in front of the protestors. Lian had been struck several times - not by bullets - but by debris that had ricocheted off of the ground. He thought for sure he'd been struck, but when he saw he wasn't bleeding, he fled with everyone else.

Two days later, after getting tipped off that he was going to be arrested, Lian trekked to India. "It was seven days off-road," Lian said. "That's the beginning of my refugee life."

Lian fought for democracy for eight years with the Chin National Front, before coming to the U.S. in 1996.

The U.S. Information Agency awarded him a Burmese Refugee Scholarship, which allowed Lian to pursue a degree at Valparaiso University. Upon graduating from there, Lian came to Indiana Law, where has since earned L.L.M. and S.J.D. degrees.

Lian now works with the CCDPS, where faculty members and researchers have been advising pro-democracy forces in Burma for the last seven years. When asked how people feel about the 20th anniversary of the deadly uprising, Lian said those who were too young to see the protests may not fully appreciate the sacrifices that were made in the attempts to secure a democratic future for the country.

"Those who participated or witnessed the 1988 movements also have in their mind the need to continue to achieve what those people started," he said. "Our hatred and dislike of the regime was so bitter, but now almost the entire population - including a lot of the Burmese army - is seeing democracy as the best way. One day it will change."

Burma, which is now officially known as the Union of Myanmar, remains under military control. But CCDPS founder and director David C. Williams, who also serves as the John S. Hastings Professor of Law at Indiana Law, said several factors may eventually point to a democratic future for the country.

"China's attitude may change," Williams said of Burma's northern neighbor. "China wants Burma to be orderly on its southern border. That could lead to a change in support for the regime."

The regime has also put forward a constitution that, in theory, would open the door to the formation of political parties.

And Williams said the regime may find it difficult to maintain social order among the population, especially in the wake of Cyclone Nargis this summer, when offers of aid were refused.

Looking back 20 years - all recorded in a small diary - Lian, for one, agrees that a change is coming.

"In 1988, I didn't care about what a constitution was or what it meant to me," he said. "Today, even people in small villages know that a constitution is the way for democracy."