February 23, 2020
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Student Power

Fearing a repeat of 1988, the authorities shut down colleges

Student Power

STUDENTS are out on the streets of Myanmar again. In scenes reminiscent of 1988, when the student-led activists took to the streets of Yangon in support of democracy only to be brutally massacred by the army, the youth have been demonstrating once again at university campuses and public intersections in Yangon and Mandalay since last week.

The protests were set off by a minor incident—police mishandling of a brawl between three students of the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) and a restaurant-owner in October. The authorities claim that the arrested students have been let off and the policemen involved sacked. But in true Myanmarese style, the students decided this was the spark they needed to fire. The demands have now snowballed into a movement raising larger issues like the right to form unions banned by the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC).

The students have always been a potential danger factor for the military regime as they have been the torch-bearers of most movements in Myanmar, including that of independence from British rule. Bogyoke Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, rose from the ranks of student activists. His name rather than Suu Kyi’s was being chanted by the students in the latest uprising.

In spite of the SLORC’s routine allegation that the demonstrations are the handiwork of "colonial lackeys" and "outside agents"—their usual roundabout way of referring to Suu Kyi, who has a British husband, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders—both Suu Kyi and the students say they are in no way linked as far as the recent protests are concerned. But the SLORC is taking no chances and Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders have been confined to their homes while most of the roads leading to the university campuses have been cordoned off. Suu Kyi herself has been verbally restrained, probably because on no account does she want a repeat of the massacre of 1988.

The SLORC, too, has been, in a manner of speaking, restrained. Students have been arrested, beaten up, intimidated—the Human Rights Watch Asia office in Bangkok says scores of students are still in custody—but there has been no outburst like the firings of 1988. This may have less to do with lessons learnt from the past than the SLORC’s desire to join ASEAN in the near future. There is the added consideration for their tourist promotion programme ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ which kicked off to a rather poor start in November, almost a year behind schedule. Observers in Yangon point out that the junta’s reaction to any moves on the part of NLD workers has been much harsher than their response to the students. But General Tin Oo, one of the four key generals in the SLORC, said on December 12 that the military government "will never allow the recurrence of the 1988 disturbances and would annihilate any internal elements who are trying to disrupt the country". 

But that does not mean that the SLORC underestimates the students. The historic Union building at Rangoon University was dynamited and hundreds of students killed shortly after General Ne Win came to power in 1962. After 1988, universities were closed for nearly three years, and when they reopened, the Rangoon University campus was split to different areas. This time too classes have been suspended but sources say the authorities are forcing students to sign two-week absence applications rather than publicly declare the universities and high schools closed.

While the primary demand of the students at the moment is the right to form unions and the release of all students in custody, there have been confused signals of wider demands for freedom and human rights as well. What spells danger for the SLORC is that the protests which began with a sit-in demonstration at the RIT campus have now spread from one campus to another, even to the northern city of Mandalay. Even more dangerous is the fact that ordinary citizens have come out to give the protesters food and water.

In another development, a group of monks in Mandalay announced the formation of an association. All such organisations are illegal. Buddhist monks, like the students, have played a key role in antiEstablishment movements in the country’s history. Many of the monks are known to be supporters of Suu Kyi and a few were even seen at the weekend meetings she used to hold. And tackling them could be even tougher for the military junta.

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