Student unions have been icons of democratic struggles in Myanmar, but not every student is interested in keeping this legacy alive.
Htet Naing Phyo joined his student union to make Yangon Technical University (YTU) more like the campus experience he saw while visiting the US. The social clubs and sports teams at Indiana University are concepts he believes he can continue to build next month when school is in session. But for YTU, where the 1988 democratic uprising began, this has meant moving away from the school’s tradition of political activism.
“We are very proud of our revolutionary history, the past is important but also concerning if you are trying to build a strong university culture where students have opportunities”, says Htet Naing Phyo, Vice President of the Yangon Technical University’s Student Union.
University student unions, also known as ‘student thamaga’ which translates to ‘student unity’ in Pali, are icons of democracy and self-determination in Myanmar. Thousands have been arrested for participating in student-led demonstrations throughout the 50-year military dictatorship.
The pro-democracy demonstrations led to YTU, and other campuses in Yangon, to be shuttered for nearly 30 years starting in 1990. The YTU campus only reopened in 2013, before that, undergraduates had to attend lectures on other university grounds on the outskirts of the city.
The National Education Law of 2014, passed by Gen. Thein Sein’s transitional government, failed to grant freedom of political expression and association on university campuses. Now, student union leaders must decide whether to risk fighting for social change or shift towards an apolitical identity. YTU has chosen the latter.
“All student organisations are still illegal, but we have an understanding with the faculty now”, says Htet Naing Oo, “we don’t want to take part in political issues.”.
Student unions in Myanmar remain technically illegal, but they are tolerated under the condition that they stay out of the political arena. Almost every university has a student union, their connection to political activities often determines their staying-power on campus.
In 2014, the student union leaders of the University of Information of Technology were expelled on suspicion of activism despite having a mission statement that barred any political expression in the organisation. “I just wanted a better library and some extra-curricular activities, but when the school discovered two members were involved in protests, they kicked us all out”, says Me Me Khant, former leader of the disbanded student union.
YTU represents a trend in Myanmar universities of depoliticized student unions, instead focusing on extra-curricular activities and event planning similar to universities in the US and Europe. Not every student union, however, has abandoned their activist tradition.
Yangon University (YU)’s student union started with Myanmar forefather, Aung San who led the student union in 1935, continues to be politically involved. Its current student union leaders see themselves as preserving this history of dissidence, albeit with a more focused approach.
“We have no political demands. Members can be involved in Burma politics, but only as an individual. Here, we are only about education reform.” Says Myat Tun Thein, President of YU’s student union.
The National Education Law is at the core of YU student union’s agenda, which they deem less as political and more about their own well-being. The primary complaints of the legislation are that it keeps the national education system centralised and still restricts freedom of association on campus.
“There are donors around the world who are ready to remodel this campus but the government restricts funding. If Yangon University had some level of autonomy from the Ministry [of Education], this school would improve greatly”, says Myat Thein Tun.
While student unions across the country are shifting away from activism, Myat Tun Thein is attempting to build a coalition of undergraduates willing to pressure the government to reform higher education. Though other students on campus are fearful of government retribution.
“The number one challenge facing Yangon University student union is a lack of interest from students. They do not want to be associated with political issues, not even ones involving their education, they are pressured to focus solely on their studies”, says Thoon Htike San, Public Relation Officer with YU student union.
There are only 150 members out of 5000 undergraduates in the YU student union, apathy or fear of civic engagement remaining the chief barrier to the growth of the organisation. Leaders believe that membership will increase once politicians can begin supporting them publicly.
YU’s student union has been in contact with prominent political figures in the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and the National League for Democracy (NLD) parties. Unfortunately, the restrictive National Education Law prevents most of these people from speaking on campus.
Myat Tun Thein is optimistic that political expression and student unions will soon have legal protection. Upon meeting Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in 2014, she hinted that universities could be liberalised with upcoming legislation.
“She told us to ‘just wait’, student unions will get freedom and their concerns will be addressed, on an individual basis”, says Myat Tun Thein, “this would not overturn the National Education Law but it will help those who are promoted a democratic culture”.
Previous Student Unions
Despite his commitment to maintaining a political angle to YU, Myat Tun Thein is careful to separate himself from the most strident vanguards of university activism. All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), also known as Bakatha, is the organisation that Aung San joined in 1935. Its leaders today join protests and believe that students have an obligation to be agents of social change on campus.
“ABFSU works in cells, like agents, they are often not even students of a university, but leftist activists,” says Myat Tun Thein.
Almost all leaders of ABFSU have spent time in prison for protesting against the military dictatorship, now they have returned to their alma maters in hopes of grooming the next generation of student activists. The organisation has chapters in most universities, but membership is small, YU only has 5 members at the moment.
“If education is a priority, then you cannot separate political affairs with student affairs. Students can only reach their potential if they have a voice, that is what student unions can do”, says Thiha Tun Thein, Director of Communications with ABFSU’s central committee, and postgraduate student at YU.
Thiha Win Thiha spent a total of five years in prison for his involvement in ABFSU which began during the Saffron Revolution of 2007. He has continued to protest the military’s control of the country, including the Letpadan protest, a group of hundreds of activists who walked from Mandalay to Yangon but met with a violent response from the military.
“The government tries to present things as overly complicated, the world is more black and white than the government says, there is right and wrong. We fight for what is right, whether that be for students or the rural citizens of Burma,” says Thiha Win Tin.
ABFSU does not plan on ending its campaign to highlight the “inequities and injustices” of Burmese society. Human rights abuses are at the core of ABFSU’s mission statement. But the group has yet to join or organise any protests since the new government took control of parliament this past February.
Many NLD members have also spent time in prison for student union affiliation, with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi pledging to legitimise student unions in 2012.
“We are careful since the NLD was elected, there is never going to be full democracy under the 2007 constitution, but we will support the people’s will and see what the new government does”, says Kyaw Ko Ko, Director of ABFSU.
It is unclear if ABFSU will ever collaborate with official university student unions in the future. Their hard-line approach may simply be too politically toxic for students who do not want to see their schools shut down again. But they do have more amicable presences in universities outside of Yangon.
Other student activists, however, believe that one can be politically involved in their personal life but leave those convictions outside of campus grounds. Myat Tun Thein, the leader of Yangon University student union, never speaks about advocacy work in his home state of Rakhine.
“I am passionate about Rohingya issues, I plan on helping them find peace, but on my own”, says Myat Tun Thein, “If my student union was associated with this, it would be destroyed. It is important to be disciplined”.