15 Years After 8-8-88
By Min Zin
August 08, 2003—BBC reporter
Christopher Gunness, who reported from the frontline of Burma’s
pro-democracy uprising, has been credited by the Burmese government
and activists for triggering public outrage against the regime
in 1988. Gunness, however, rejects the claims.
to Gunness, people did not rally because of his reporting,
but because of the government’s actions. "To suggest
that what outraged over forty million people, was the reportage
of a very inexperienced BBC reporter, is to miss the point
about what was happening and to diminish the role of the Burmese
people in those events," Gunness says in an interview
with The Irrawaddy.
Today marks 15 years since the uprising on Aug 8, 1988, when
thousands of people in Burma took to the streets to protest
for democracy and an end to one-party-rule. Crowds swelled,
and just before midnight the military sprayed demonstrators
with bullets, killing thousands. The bloodshed continued over
the following days.
Only a few foreign journalists inside the country reported
on the deadly massacres taking place around Burma. Christopher
Gunness was one of them.
"The Burmese people themselves rose up," Gunness
says. "They are the true heroes of 1988. All I did was
report on it."
In 1988, Gunness filed a series of reports from Burma for
the BBC and unearthed startling evidence of military misrule.
Many of his stories were aired on the BBC (Burmese Service)
and he quickly built a reputation among shortwave radio listeners
in information-starved Burma.
8-8-88 Burma’s pro-democracy
"Chris Gunness and the ’88 movements went together,"
says a journalist in Rangoon. "Sometimes, people would
give the nickname ‘Christopher Gunness’ to those
who eagerly followed the news in their neighborhoods."
However, Gunness warns against overstating his impact. "To
overplay my role in the ’88 events is to play into the
hands of the generals. It suggests that the problem is not
them, but a foreigner—a classic, but crass attempt to
find an external scapegoat," the reporter notes.
One of the more memorable stories Gunness recorded for the
BBC in 1988 featured interviews with female students in Rangoon,
who claimed they were raped by military interrogators. Gunness’
report had a tremendous impact and the horrifying news angered
The Burmese people themselves rose
up. They are the true heroes of 1988. All I did was
report on it.
While the government argued the accusations in the report
by Gunness were a fabrication, he still believes in what the
interviewees told him. "I have no doubt at all that the
women I met had been raped. The treatment of these women has
also been confirmed subsequently by several unimpeachable
sources," Gunness says.
Gunness still works with the BBC as one of the hosts of the
BBC World Service East Asia Today program. The reporter is
keen to return to Rangoon to file more reports, but was blacklisted
by the junta after leaving the Burmese capital in 1988. He
says if he did go back, he’d stay away from "banging"
on about democracy and human rights and find stories about
how people have survived the 15 years of oppression.
"The story of modern Burma is a story about the enduring
nature of the human spirit," Gunness says. "The
struggle for democracy is only one aspect of that."