Student Unions Continue to Confront the State in Myanmar

ko ko thett
Nov 27th, 2014

A postgraduate student of tourism at Mandalay University complains that her professor is ‘never there.’ Lest her thesis be under-evaluated by the absentee professor, she doesn’t dare write anything mildly critical of the neoliberal Myanmar Tourism Master Plan, an antithesis to the very subject of her thesis: the spirit of community-based tourism. Hers is not an isolated story.

Forget academic freedom! Attempts have been made to militarize “national education” by the juntas that preceded the Thein Sein government. Like every other civil servant, all university professors, lecturers, and even senior school teachers, have undergone a rigorous basic military training or “refresher courses” at a Central Institute of Civil Service (CICS) branch. In order to maintain the status quo and their prospects of promotion, civil servants have no choice but to toe the government line.

The CICS drills Myanmar physicians, academicians, and engineers entering civil service with the much-dreaded “three main national causes” – non-disintegration of the union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty – that inform Myanmar’s controversial 2008 constitution.

Even though very few people – bar the former generals and their next-of-kin soldiers, perhaps – in their heart of hearts take the three main national causes seriously, the CICS is dead serious about “total people’s defence”, the Maoist national defence policy that prepares the entire population’s battle-readiness in anticipation of a foreign invasion.

In the event of an occupation by the US forces, most people in Myanmar can turn themselves into guerrillas and fight an intractable war. By 2014, however, Barak Obama had declared Myanmar as a US foreign policy success. In May, at the West Point military academy’s graduation ceremony in New York, Obama said that the US would have won over Myanmar ‘without firing a shot’ if the Thein Sein government continued to toe the American line.

From November 14, unbeknown to the industrious student in Mandalay, members of All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) staged a series of protests in Yangon against the passing of the National Education Bill. The timing could not have been better. Barak Obama was in town, giving a speech to another group of students at Yangon University.

When most dissidents have become either members of the so-called civil society or politicians in transitional Myanmar, the ABFSU has refused to register as a civil society organization under the Thein Sein government. The students say that the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a grouping of ABFSU members and education experts, had been excluded from the drafting of the National Education Bill.

In a replay of the student protests of 1996, the students walked along Insein road and staged a sit-in at Hleedan intersection – now under the shadow of a recently built overpass – and attempted to mobilize their peers from Yangon University. Instead of the printed vinyl signboards associated with well-funded civil society protests, the ABFSU carried hand-drawn cardboard signs that declare, “Say No To National Education Law”, “We Don’t Need No Slave Education” and “School is Not Animal Farm”.

Next, the students marched towards the Shwedagon shrine. They stopped at an unassuming rectangular marble monument at a corner of Shwedagon and lowered their fighting peacock flags. The English language face of the monument reads, “This is the place where the first eleven students of Rangoon College met and affirmed an oath to boycott the University Act of 1920 on 3rd December 1920.”

At the peak of the current protests, the student numbers swelled to perhaps five hundred. They invited onlookers and other students to join them but few were incited into their cause. Sympathisers showered them with bottled water and food packages, but could not bring in more participation. Soon it became clear that, as the 1920 students had predicted, the Burmese students are in for a fight “the end of which no one can yet foresee.”

Two days later, the student boycott committee managed to meet with the representatives of the Ministry of Education, who were merely there to take notes for higher authorities. The students’ call for four-party talks that include the Thein Sein government, parliament, the NNER and the ABFSU, is yet to be answered. The speaker of the Lower House, former General Shwe Man, appeased the students when he said the NNER could come up with a list of points for reform. His proposal was echoed by the Ministry of Education.

What the Thein Sein government can do to accommodate the students’ demand to overhaul the Bill for “democratic education” or  “academic freedom” remains unclear. After all, the very positionalities of the students and the authorities are poles apart. It is not just the current National Education Bill that the students are up against. It is the whole military system that they want to see gone, and they have made this abundantly clear in their rhetoric. It is not about how the Bill is drafted or what the Bill is all about, but what underpins it.

 By 18 November, the students had given the government 60 days to respond. Or, they warn, in the manner of 1988 dissident students, they will rock the government with a mass picket. Yet it is uncertain how the legendary ABFSU will maintain the momentum of its campaign, let alone mobilize the whole country.

After all, in transitional Myanmar, most former dissidents who might have moral authority over the populace are in the golden handcuffs of parliamentary politics or in disjointed civil society groups. Still worse, social conditions are so dire that some famished individuals have been stirred up into pro-government demonstrations with the promise of biryani. Others, as a Burmese poem goes, would “swap an authentic sunset for a Korean soap.”

Worst of all perhaps, students in transitional Myanmar  – like the postgrad from Mandalay University mentioned above, or the students who sought Obama’s company at Yangon University– would rather seek academic freedom at world-class universities abroad. To such aspirations, both National Education Bill and the continuing ABFSU protests, the latest of which were seen at Yadanabon University on the outskirts of Mandalay on 24 November and in Monywa on 25 November, appear inconsequential.

Photo: ABFSU


ko ko thett
Last blog date: Nov 27th, 2014


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