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Photographer Geoffrey Hiller made his first foray into Myanmar — also known as Burma — when he was traveling around Southeast Asia in 1987. At the time, he could only get a seven-day tourist visa, and the best method for changing currency was to arrive with two cartons of cigarettes and two bottles of Johnnie Walker, then trade them for cash outside the airport.

"I’ll never forget flying in from Bangkok — there were no lights at all, and all you could see was the Shwedagon Pagoda," he says of his initial arrival.

"It was very, very isolated. The people would see pens in your pocket, and they would stare at them because they didn’t even have ballpoint pens. They were hungry for very basic things."

A Long-Standing Love Affair With Myanmar

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Geoffrey Hiller

Members of a Muslim family react to the loss of a relative who died in the recent spate of violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state in Thapyuchai village. Portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father Aung San are seen in a National League for Democracy branch office that was thrown into disarray during violence. A Muslim girl watches from the doorway of her home as soldiers walk by in Thapyuchai village, outside of Thandwe in the Rakhine state. Muslims sit in a temporary refugee camp after losing their homes during recent violence in Thapyuchai village, outside of Thandwe in the Rakhine state. Cho Mar, an 11-year-old who hid in the jungle with her mother during an attack by Buddhist gangs, inspects the Thanaka she had just put on her face at Thapyuchai village, outside of Thandwe.

Myanmar | October 2, 2013

Terrified Muslim families hid in forests in western Myanmar on Wednesday, one day after fleeing a new round of deadly sectarian violence that erupted even as the president toured the divided region. The discovery of four bodies brought the death toll from the latest clashes up to at least five.

Tuesday’s unrest near the coastal town of Thandwe, which saw Buddhist mobs kill a 94-year-old woman and four other Muslims and burn dozens of homes, underscored the government’s persistent failure to stop the sectarian violence from spreading.

"Like in Korean movies, they have swords and sticks," said Muslim resident Tin Win. "There’s no law and order in this town. We’re in a serious situation, we’re really worried."

Another resident of Thandwe, Myo Min, said a small mosque in Kyikanyet, about 43 kilometers from Thandwe, was burned by attackers Tuesday night. Police said they were trying to confirm that report. 

Myo Min said he was concerned about the safety of families who fled Tuesday’s violence. Many families in Thabyuchaing, he said, fled into forests when their village was attacked.

"Many of them, including women and children, are still hiding, and they are cornered and unable to come out," Myo Min said. "They need food and water, and Muslim elders are discussing with authorities to evacuate them or send food."

Most of those targeted in Rakhine state have been ethnic Rohingya Muslims, considered by many in the country to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, though many of their families arrived generations ago. But in the latest flare-up this week, the victims were Kamans, another Muslim minority group, whose citizenship is recognized.

Muslims, who account for about 4 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 60 million people, have been the main victims of the violence, but they have been prosecuted for crimes related to the clashes far more often than members of the Buddhist majority.

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims since June last year have killed at least 237 people in Myanmar and 192 of those deaths were in Rakhine state, where Rohingya Muslims, most of whom are stateless, bore the brunt of the attacks.

(Photos by Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

A boy salvages belongings amid burnt debris at Htan Kone village in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing region on August 25, 2013. Authorities restored order in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing region on Sunday after a Buddhist mob set fire to nearly two dozen Muslim-owned buildings and attacked rescue workers in the latest widening of sectarian violence in the former military-run state.
[Credit : Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

A boy salvages belongings amid burnt debris at Htan Kone village in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing region on August 25, 2013. Authorities restored order in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing region on Sunday after a Buddhist mob set fire to nearly two dozen Muslim-owned buildings and attacked rescue workers in the latest widening of sectarian violence in the former military-run state.

[Credit : Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

8.8.88: 25 years after unrest, Myanmar begins to cope

YANGON, Myanmar (AP)Twenty-five years later, you can still see the fear in the eyes of the doctors — two young men carrying a schoolgirl, her blouse drenched in blood, through streets where soldiers were brutally crushing pro-democracy protests.

The photograph, thrust to prominence when it ran on the cover of Newsweek, came to symbolize the defeat of a 1988 uprising in the nation then called Burma. The revolt’s end cemented the power of the military, sent thousands of activists to prison and helped bring a future Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, to prominence.

Only now, a generation after the events of the day known as “8.8.88,” is Win Zaw beginning to talk about it all.

He is the doctor in the back of the scene, his glasses slipping down his nose as he struggles to carry the bloody girl. Today, two years after Myanmar’s military junta handed over power to a quasi-civilian government, he still hesitates to summon that long-ago day. And for many people in Myanmar, their own painful history remains little more than a whisper.

"The door is only open a little bit," says Win, now 48, taking long pauses as he tries to find the right words. "I want to talk, for the sake of history, and all those who died. In my heart, I feel like this is the right time. But still I feel insecure."

In this picture dated August 27, 1988, Buddhist monks listen to unseen opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally held in Yangon. (AFP/Getty Images)

It is a story from so many nations that have struggled with the aftermaths of their own horrors. When is the right time to push long-hidden conversations into the open, to deal with the past, to cope?

Argentina faced this in the years after the Dirty War of the 1970s, when the nation tried to move past decades of military oppression. It happened in Cambodia, where the savagery of Pol Pot’s regime trained an entire nation to remain silent.

It has happened repeatedly in modern China, where the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown remains a largely forbidden topic, and where even the half-century-old historical realities of the “Great Leap Forward” — Mao Zedong’s disastrous policies that led to widespread famine and the deaths of tens of millions in the late 1950s and early 1960s — have come into the open only recently.

"We avoided even making reference to it," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who was born and raised in China. "There’s still a constant tug of war, between the censors and the people who want to tell the truth … Subtly, gradually, though, this is beginning to change."

When change does come, though, where does it come from? How do fear and silence eventually get out of the way so that a country can openly discuss its own history?

Some of it is simply the power of time. Powerful politicians die. History’s traumatic events are eclipsed by more recent traumas. Small steps toward truth cascade into more. Eventually, details begin to emerge.

The truth about famine, for example, had long been known in rough outlines outside China but was known inside the country by only the political elite and a handful of scholars. In recent years, even the government has begun to acknowledge that Mao’s policies were partly to blame.

Myanmar, like China, is a nation where dictatorial rule has become less harsh, though it remains far from truly democratic. And Myanmar’s history has bred generations of pessimists.

After Gen. Ne Win seized control in a 1962 coup it went from being one of Asia’s wealthiest nations to one of the world’s poorest. Resentment over Ne Win’s corrupt and inefficient policies began to grow in 1987 and simmered until Aug. 8, 1988, when a nationwide strike led to widespread protests and quick military repression. A civilian president, named amid the bloodshed, lasted less than a month before being ousted in a Sept. 18 coup.

In this picture taken August 26, 1988, Burmese democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (top-C) addresses an anti-military regime rally in Yangon. (AFP/Getty Images)

No government officials have ever been held accountable for the violence, which left an estimated 3,000 people dead.

On Thursday, thousands of people gathered for speeches, exhibitions and marches to remember the 1988 uprising. In Yangon, about 150 peaceful marchers pushed past police and local authorities who demanded they stop. Just a couple years ago, confrontations like that would almost certainly have ended in violence. On Thursday, though, the marchers simply continued walking.

"I was only 11 years old when the ‘88 event happened, and I don’t remember much except that people shouted ‘Our Cause!’" said Aung Thaw, a 36-year-old computer salesman. He said he joined the demonstration because "I wanted to salute those who had courageously taken part in the historic movement."

It was during protests that followed the September coup when Win Zaw, then a doctor at Yangon’s main hospital, heard that demonstrators had been shot by soldiers and needed medical help.

Working with an older colleague, Saw Lwin, he repeatedly traveled by ambulance into the protest zone, carrying the injured to the hospital.

On the third trip, as they rounded the corner onto Merchant Road, one of the city’s main streets, they saw dozens of dead and injured demonstrators. Blood was everywhere.

The two doctors spotted a young girl, badly injured. Many of the fiercest protesters were students, and the girl was wearing the uniform of a high school student: a dark wraparound longyi and white blouse. The shirt was almost completely red with blood.

"I listened carefully and found that her heart was still beating," Win said. "She whispered, ‘Brother, help me.’"

Urging her not to give up, the two doctors ran with 16-year-old Win Maw Oo to the ambulance. That is where Steve Lehman, a 24-year-old American photographer, captured them, their fear and exhaustion obvious, their doctors’ coats flapping.

The girl would never see the photograph. She died the same evening.

Weeks later, when the photo appeared on Newsweek’s cover, Win Zaw feared there would be trouble. In 1992, he was detained by the military, blindfolded, taken to an interrogation center and held for five days. While he was not tortured, he was deeply shaken by the arrest. He was also blacklisted by the government, and could not get a passport for nearly 20 years. He ended up running a private clinic.

Things went far worse for Saw Lwin. His father, a top executive for the state broadcaster, was forced to retire. Saw, feeling responsible for what happened to his father, grew depressed. In 1996, he killed himself.

"I lost a comrade, a friend," Win Zaw said.

Picture taken on September 16, 1988 of a mass demonstration in Rangoon (Yangon), on the eve of a military takeover on September 18 in Burma. (AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years after the crackdown, much remains unspoken in Myanmar. Thousands disappeared into the country’s prisons during military rule, some for many years and often for doing nothing more than distributing leaflets. The torturers of the interrogation centers remain free, as do the jailers and the men who gave them orders.

"If the government recognizes past atrocities and commits to accountability, the anniversary of 8.8.88 could be a pivotal moment in addressing decades of repressive rule," Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "It could even be the start of a new era if the military and government move from denial to admission and from impunity to justice."

But if activists are calling for investigations, or even a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the powerful generals and the government are eager to put history behind them, to welcome the end of sanctions and watch the economy blossom. Tourists now flock to Myanmar. Trade deals are being signed. And Win Zaw is writing a book.

While he’s nervous about going public, he says what happened during those protests needs to be remembered: “8.8.88 should not be forgotten. We have to keep the spirit alive.”

Left picture above: Win Kyu, left, and his wife Khin Htay Win hold a portrait of their 16-year-old daughter Win Maw Oo, who was killed during pro-democracy protests brutally crushed by Myanmar’s military 25 years ago, in their house in Yangon, Myanmar on Aug. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win) 

Right picture above : Doctor Win Zaw points to a photograph that shows him helping carry badly injured 16-year-old Win Maw Oo, a student activist shot during a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters 25 years ago, in Yangon, Myanmar on Aug. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

A wreath is kept on a barbed-wired roadside barrier outside Yangon city hall commemorating the victims of Aug. 8, 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Yangon, Myanmar on Aug. 8, 2013. More than a million people protested following the government’s sudden demonetization of the currency in September 1987, in which brought down longtime dictator Ne Win, but replaced him with new group of generals who brutally crushed the protests killing an estimated 3,000 people.
[Credit : Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP]

A wreath is kept on a barbed-wired roadside barrier outside Yangon city hall commemorating the victims of Aug. 8, 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Yangon, Myanmar on Aug. 8, 2013. More than a million people protested following the government’s sudden demonetization of the currency in September 1987, in which brought down longtime dictator Ne Win, but replaced him with new group of generals who brutally crushed the protests killing an estimated 3,000 people.

[Credit : Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP]