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Christopher Gunness: 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.

According 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 uprising

"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 people everywhere.

The Burmese people themselves rose up. They are the true heroes of 1988. All I did was report on it.
—Christopher Gunness

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."

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