The suppression of student activism begun during the British colonial period endures in Myanmar. Since the start of this year, students have been repeatedly warned against participating in political activities and are resisting pressure to prevent them calling their campus organisations “unions”.
The suppression of student activism begun during the British colonial period endures in Myanmar.
Since the start of this year, students have been repeatedly warned against participating in political activities and are resisting pressure to prevent them calling their campus organisations “unions”.
The moves are an affront to the student activists of yesteryear, who recall with pride the role of student unions in the independence movement early last century.
Student unions were instrumental in the struggle for independence, a former secretary of the All Burma Students’ Union, U Win Htut Zaw, 70, told Mizzima Daily early last month.
The ABSU, the University Students Union and the Students Union of Yangon District were founding members of the Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) and the Thirty Comrades group which played pivotal roles in the independence movement, U Win Htut Zaw said.
He was responding to comments by the Education Minister, Dr Khin San Yee, that a draft higher education bill included clauses that would require student organisations to be called associations rather than unions.
The minister’s comments also drew a sharp response from Ko Nan Lwin, the secretary of the Dagon University Students Union, whose members have come under pressure from the university administration over the issue.
“We will never change the word union because to use that word is part of our history,” Ko Nan Lwin told Mizzima on August 4.
The previous month, an application by students at Dagon University to form a union was denied. The student union’s flag was seized by the university’s registrar and it was only returned after mediation by the University Teachers Union, said a member of the academic staff.
It is not only at Dagon University that students have come under pressure this year over the “union” issue, the chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, Ko Kyaw Ko Ko, told Mizzima Business Weekly.
Members of the ABFSU at Yamethin Technical University in southern Mandalay Region were pressured to leave the organisation, Ko Kyaw Ko Ko said, and lecturers elsewhere were known to have put pressure on parents to urge their children to revoke their membership of the union.
The wary paternalism of the educational authorities towards student activism has found expression in other decisions.
In January, students at Taunggyi University in the Shan State capital were banned from holding an ‘all-ethnic students forum’, because university staff “were concerned that the students were acting without consulting their teachers,” Mizzima Daily reported.
In July, students in the Mon State capital, Mawlamyaing, were warned against holding a ceremony to honour the memory of independence hero and prominent student activist, General Aung San, a member of the ABFSU, the Dobama Asiayone and the Thirty Comrades.
The was ceremony planned for July 19, Martyr’s Day, which commemorates the assassination of Aung San, six members of his shadow cabinet and two officials at the Secretariat in Yangon in 1947.
The students had wanted to pay their respects before a statue of Aung San in a Mawlamyaing park but the State’s Minister for Development Affairs, Dr Toe Toe Aung, said he would not grant permission for the ceremony because it was in a public place.
The students had held the ceremony the previous year without any problem, said the chair of the university’s student union, Ko Phone Myat Moe.
Students are discouraged from participating in politics from their first day at university, when they are required to sign a pledge to that effect. “Before, this was related to membership for political parties but now it is for involvement in all political activities,” said Ko Kyaw Ko Ko.
Students have played active roles in the nation’s political life since early last century and one of their first acts of protest was a campaign against a national education system under British colonial rule.
After independence, the focus of student activism turned from foreign rulers to their own. For most of the decades since 1962 the target of student protests was the military dictatorship, which responded by closing universities for long periods and building campuses on the outskirts of cities to stifle opportunities for protests in urban centres.
Since 2012, many former student activists who fled the country after the suppression of the national uprising in 1988 have returned home in response to invitations from government leaders, including President U Thein Sein in 2011, to contribute to the change taking place in Myanmar.
But the younger generation of students, of whom many were imprisoned after the protests in 2007 known as the Saffron Revolution, and the members of student unions, receive little recognition.
The ABFSU is believed to have been invited only once to a function attended by President U Thein Sein, when he met civil society groups from throughout the country in 2012.
“We had to submit questions beforehand but we were not allowed to ask our questions,” said Ko Kyaw Ko Ko, adding that similar restrictions were imposed on other youth and ethnic groups.
In one encouraging development, the Myanmar Peace Center reached out to the Confederation of University Student Unions in July, in a move that raised hope among students of recognition as legitimate stakeholders in the country’s future.
“They said that if we wanted we could meet with [President’s Office Minister] U Soe Thein, [President’s Office Minister and chief government negotiator in the ceasefire talks] U Aung Min and even President Thein Sein,” said Ko Si Thu Maung, a member of the CUSU who was involved in the protests in 2007.
Some CUSU m embers were sceptical but after discussing the invitation they agreed to meet MPC members at a venue on Inya Lake.
“They talked to us about what they are doing; they did not ask for our opinion,” said Ko Si Thu Muang, who was among the CUSU members at the meeting.
He said U Aung Min’s aide had subsequently approached the CUSU for more talks “about youth and peace”.
Despite this indication that some leading members of the government are willing to engage with students, it is not an attitude shared throughout the administration.
The Ministry of Science and Technology, which is responsible for technological and vocational universities, has been accused of the alleged intimidation of students.
Myanmar-language media in June cited what was said to be a directive from the ministry warning that students at its institutions who participated in public protests would be at risk of expulsion. A senior official at the ministry denied that such a directive was issued. Technical and vocational universities drafted their own rules and regulations, not the ministry, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“From 18 years old, students are grown up and in a democracy we cannot force them or tell them what to do,” the official said. “If they want to get into politics, this is not a problem; they can join any political party or movement they like,” he said.
“We have no restrictions, but they have to obey the rules and regulations of the universities,” the ministry official said.
However, senior academic sources say universities, including those under the Ministry of Technology and Science and medical schools under the Ministry of Health, are instructed how to write their rules and regulations by the relevant ministry. The universities have no autonomy, the senior academics say.
Many students are undeterred by the threat of expulsion from university and continue to participate in political activities.
They have received encouragement and inspiration from one of their most admiring supporters.
In a speech at Tiddim in Chin State early this year, National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said efforts to prevent students from becoming involved in politics were undemocratic.
“People who tell students not to get involved in politics do not want to see our democracy become a democracy,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said.
“Our democracy will not flourish unless students and youths get involved in politics,” she said.