RANGOON — The university studies of 23-year-old Ye Myat Hein were interrupted in 2007 when he was imprisoned in connection with the pro-democracy uprising known as the Saffron Revolution.
Today, more than a year after his release by Burma’s government as part of a mass amnesty in January 2012, he is among more than a dozen would-be students who have been denied the opportunity to re-enroll at the University of Yangon in Rangoon. The reason? Because of the time they served as political prisoners, which the government says amounts to truancy.
Burma’s Ministry of Education has rejected attempts to re-enroll Ye Myat Hein and 14 of his peers, only allowing the activists to attend a distance learning program, according to an officer from the ministry.
Kyaw Thu Maung, a personal assistant to the deputy education minister, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the 15 students in question were being treated in line with university policy.
“We could not allow daily university attendance to anyone who has skipped school for a long period of time,” he said. “This [rule] is not only for political prisoners, but also for others, according to the system.”
The 15 students, all activists and former political prisoners, sent three separate letters to the ministry and President Thein Sein. The group also met officials at the President’s Office but has had no luck persuading them that they should be allowed to re-enroll.
During an education conference hosted in Naypyidaw over the weekend, Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi told the activists that she would assist their re-enrollment efforts after one of the students explained their struggle.
Suu Kyi said she would bring the case before Parliament and the Ministry of Education, according to De Nyein Lin, one of the students who spoke to the Naypyidaw conference.
“She [Suu Kyi] said we had suffered two punishments, as we could not go back to university after our release from prison,” he said. “She told us she would help us all return to school.”
Phyo Phyo Aung, also among the group of 15 students, urged the government to change its current policy.
“They should be able to study if they wish to study,” said the 25-year-old activist who spent more than three years in prison before she was released in 2011.
Phyo Phyo Aung was engineering student in 2007, when she also joined the Saffron Revolution. After the protests, she went into hiding for eight months and could not sit for her university exams. She says she was arrested the next year, after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, when she left hiding to help bury victims of the storm.
“They [the government] punished us once by putting us in prison, but now they are punishing us again by preventing us from returning to school,” she said, echoing Suu Kyi’s remarks.
Before a quasi-civilian government took control in 2011, under the previous military junta, some former political prisoners committed suicide after they were released from detention and could return to university or find stable employment.
The activists now struggling for re-admission to the University of Yangon told The Irrawaddy that education was important to their lives and they believed the university’s policy was a form of discrimination.
Without a diploma, they said they faced additional discrimination from Burmese society.
“We have a problem in our communities here: Those who do not have a degree are sometimes not recognized as an educated person,” said Ye Myat Hein. “I feel there is discrimination against us—against those who were former political prisoners and could not attend university.”