YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Crowds turned out Wednesday in cities across Myanmar to commemorate the 24th anniversary of massive pro-democracy protests, with the government giving its approval — and even financial support — for the first time.
Former political prisoners joined hundreds of others at rallies in Yangon, Mandalay and elsewhere to mark the Aug. 8, 1988, start of weeks of protests across the country that were bloodily suppressed by the military.
Government approval for Wednesday's rallies would be unthinkable a few years ago. While the country was under military rule, citizens did not dare to mark the anniversary publicly for fear of arrest.
President Thein Sein, who has introduced a wave of globally praised reforms since taking office last year, sent two Cabinet ministers to inform organizers on Tuesday that the government was approving their request to hold the rallies. The ministers also handed over 1 million kyat ($1,200) in cash to help fund the events, said Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 1988 uprising who spent many years in prison.
"It's as if the government is also participating in this commemoration," Ko Ko Gyi said in a telephone interview from Mandalay, where the main rally was being held. "I feel like this is a step toward reform."
Presidential spokesman Nay Zin Latt said the government recognized the anniversary as a "historic event" and the president wanted to show his sincerity about achieving national reconciliation.
"The president always talks about national reconciliation," the spokesman said. "This action can help build better mutual understanding."
After a demonstration by students on Aug. 8, 1988, the uprising spread throughout the country, drawing an estimated million people. Several thousand were killed before the protests were crushed the following month. The military repealed the constitution and imposed martial law.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a leader of the democracy movement during the protests. Her political party swept elections held in 1990, but the military refused to let it take power.
"The '88 uprising was the symbol of the people's cooperation," Ko Ko Gyi said. "It makes us remember our friends who are still in prison and those who live abroad. It also reminds me of our hard times."
Human rights groups say authorities are still holding an unknown number of political prisoners, although the most famous have been released over the past two years, including Suu Kyi.
Last month, authorities temporarily detained more than 20 activists ahead of a planned commemoration of the 50th anniversary of a brutal military crackdown on students in July 1962.
Although all were freed after about a day, their colleagues said the detentions showed that the government remains repressive despite its reforms.