Students in Myanmar seize chance to assert political freedom

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 6:06am

Every morning Su Wai Phyo wakes before dawn to do something that was banned in Myanmar until recently: study politics.

The 23-year-old is one of a handful of students taking part in a new political science diploma for postgraduates at the University of Yangon - a course that would have been unthinkable under the country's military junta.

"Young people need to understand politics," she says after a recent early morning class. "They need to know about those who are ruling us - whether those in power are doing good things for us or doing bad things."

She will be among millions of new voters able to choose who governs them for the first time in decades later this year. The harsh military rule gave way to a quasi-civilian reformist government in 2011.

But while Myanmar's turnaround initially won widespread praise, prompting a flood of foreign investment, there are fears it is now backsliding on key reforms.

Those fears were heightened earlier this month when police cracked down on student-led protesters calling for education reform. The arrest of at least 130 sparked international condemnation.

The junta were always suspicious of students, who have been at the forefront of several major uprisings, including a mass 1988 demonstration that ended in a bloody military assault and saw the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition.

The months of student rallies have rattled the current government, fearful that the demonstrations could spiral into a wider destabilising protest movement ahead of elections, which are expected in November.

The violent scenes in the town of Letpadan, where students were charged by baton-wielding security forces after they tried to break through police lines, is far removed from the leafy confines of the University of Yangon, where optimism and political discourse abounds for the first time in years.

Once celebrated as one of Asia's leading universities, it was shuttered for much of the past two decades by the junta. It was reopened in late 2013 as part of government attempts to overhaul the educational system.

We don't want top-down policies; we want decisions to be made from the bottom up
Min Thawe Thit, student leader

"If I had tried to study political science before 2011, my parents would be worried about me going to prison," Su Wai Phyo says.

Instead, every weekday before heading to her job at a local NGO, she attends two hours of lectures and seminars on the same campus that gave birth to the 1988 protests.

Fellow student Ko Ko Aung, 28, marvels at a freedom that seemed out of reach just four years ago.

"We were very afraid of the military government at the time," he says. "We thought there were spies everywhere; that's why we didn't talk about politics."

International relations Professor Chaw Chaw Sein says her students burn with an appetite to learn the subject.

"We can talk and discuss, not only about politics round the world, but also the political changes and politics in Myanmar," she says.

She proudly describes herself as one of the "88 generation". But when that movement was crushed, she decided to work within the system.

For years, teaching international relations involved little more than studying the "Burmese path to socialism" espoused by the secretive junta. Now Chaw Chaw Sein believes a gradual transition towards democracy is the right route for Myanmar, though she's fearful of the chaos if full freedom was granted overnight.

But many young people feel change needs to come sooner.

In downtown Yangon before the latest crackdown, activists from the All Burma Student Federation Union met to strum guitars, play with the union's dog, Lucky, and plan protests.

The students want the 2014 education law altered to include free and compulsory schooling until children reach their early teens, permission to form unions, and teaching in ethnic minority languages.

"We don't want top-down policies imposed," says Min Thawe Thit, a student leader who has since been arrested. "We want decisions to be made from the bottom up."

Agence France-Presse