What Are the Aims of Myanmar Student Unions’ Protests?

By The Irrawaddy 10 August 2019

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week we’ll discuss the Student Union members’ protest against State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi inside the Yangon University compound, which was the talk of the town over the past week. Ma Ei Thiri Kyaw from the All Burma Federation of Student Unions [ABFSU] and Ko Shein Wai Aung from the Dagon University Student Union join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited Yangon University on July 20 as the head of the Myanmar Scouts Association, your Student Union members staged a protest, which grabbed the headlines. How did you know about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance and how did you organize the protest? It appeared that you organized the protest—including the placards—impromptu. Ma Ei Thiri Kyaw, would you talk about how you organized the protest?

Ei Thiri Kyaw: On the evening of July 19, the Yangon University Teachers Union invited the Student Union to welcome Daw Aung San Suu Kyi the next day. The Yangon University Student Union contacted us and said that a protest would be held against oppression at Yangon University when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited the next day. As we are members of [the ABFSU], we joined the protest.

YN: Your protest against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is a popular leader respected by many people in the country, drew angry responses on social media. Some critics even said your protest did not represent the views of a majority of students. Ko Shein Wai Aung, what is your view on those responses?

Shein Wai Aung: I would divide the responses into two. Firstly, some criticisms were personal. I mean some criticisms were made against particular individuals who took part in the protest. Secondly, some criticisms were made in response to our demands [at the protest]. So, the first group consisted of personal attacks, but the second one was reasonable. I have nothing special to say about the personal attacks. But some say there is someone behind the scenes. We, the ABFSU and all the other independent student unions have existed for a long time. Over successive eras, we have never turned our backs on the people, and we are always on their side. Again, on university campuses, we always try to meet the needs of students. We Student Union members have a clear conscience.

Secondly, regarding the criticism of our demands, more than half of the demands concern internal university issues, such as security and sexual harassment of female students. Student unions have filed complaints [about sexual harassment], and you can check this with the Kamayut Township Court. There have been many cases of mugging and pickpocketing at many universities in Yangon Region. Around half of our demands concern security issues. The other half was concerned with… After we marched to People’s Park to commemorate the 7 July event [the violent crackdown on Rangoon University students by the military regime on July 7, 1962], a complaint was filed against us under the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law for not seeking permission [from authorities]. We feel that the lawsuit is unfair. To us, they [those who were killed on July 7, 1962] are student martyrs. July 7 is a day to remember them. To show our respect for them, we marched and saluted them. But then, we were sued for holding an unlawful procession. So, we demanded that those charges be dropped. All the demands we made were realistic. Critics appear to have confused our presentation of demands with opposition to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Our intention was… Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the key leader of the country, came to the university campus and we students informed the leader of our requests by the means available to us. We do not oppose Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We didn’t ask her to step down. That is quite clear from looking at the placards we held. We just presented our requests. People must be clear about this.

YN: What is interesting to me is, as Yangon University is celebrating its centenary [in 2020], one of the placards students held up during the protest read, “Don’t try to solicit votes [from students] in the name of the university’s centenary.” Various stakeholders are making preparations for the centenary celebrations. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself is playing an active role. The university centenary is also the centenary of National Day, and the first student protest. My personal view is that students must have a role when [arrangements are being made for] the university centenary. Can the placard “Don’t try to solicit votes in the name of the university’s centenary” be interpreted to mean that student unions do not wish to cooperate with the government to mark the centenary? What is the position of student unions on the centenary?

ETK: The centenary is directly concerned with student unions. The first student protest took place in 1920. In successive periods, student unions took a leading role in the independence struggle and the fight against military dictatorship. So, student unions including the ABFSU are concerned with the centenary. Student unions play an important role. [The government] has not officially invited student unions or the ABFSU [to participate in preparations] for the university centenary. We feel we are being ignored. So, [the placard] is partly a warning [to the government] regarding the university centenary.

SWA: Speaking of that placard, I have to talk about the university centenary first. Yangon University is a sacred place not only for students and student unions, but also in Myanmar’s history. All the historic turning points in Myanmar started at Yangon University. We are happy the government is paying serious attention to centenary celebrations. But at the same time, schools and universities in Yangon Region and elsewhere in the country have many needs, especially in terms of infrastructure. Funding is insufficient. Everyone is probably aware that at some universities outside Yangon, motorbikes have to be parked in muddy fields. And regarding campus security, there are cases of motorbikes being stolen, even at campuses like Dagon University in Yangon. We want those needs to be met first. We are happy that the government will organize the centenary on a grand scale, but if it is to spend a lot of money, we want to stress that there is an urgent need to fulfill infrastructural requirements at universities in Yangon and elsewhere in the country. We want to see the centenary celebrations held on a grand scale, but we want to have a meaningful event, rather than spending a lot of money on it. So, [the placard] was intended to urge the government to fulfill the requirements of universities, if it has funds.

YN: Successive governments have failed to develop warm relations with students. But the current government is an elected government and was born out of the democracy movement. So, we hope there will be warmer relations between the current government and students. Do you expect the government to constructively respond to your demands?

ETK: [On the day of the July 7 commemoration], we were able to talk to the education minister, and he said he would send a request to the home affairs minister about a ninth grader [who was arrested after participating in the event]. He is a child, as he is not yet 18 years old. We requested that he not be handcuffed [when brought to trial] and that he be kept separately [from other inmates] in prison, as he is still a child. The education minister said he would send a request. Just a few days ago, we learned that he was sent to a youth rehabilitation center. We demanded that students arrested unfairly for their participation in 7 July commemoration [be released]. It is an event that marks the deaths of hundreds of students in 1962 because of General Ne Win. We have commemorated the event annually since 2012. No lawsuits were filed against us for doing so under the previous government. However, the current government, which calls itself democratic, suppresses freedom of expression and assembly. There have been unfair arrests of not only students but also farmers and laborers. A democratic government should adhere to democratic norms. When we raised this issue, some people responded that [the arrests] were not made by the government, but by the Home Affairs Ministry, which is overseen by the military. If that is so, then we should ask what the responsibility of a government is. This is what I would like to ask regarding the 7 July commemorative event. Again, regarding the sexual harassment of female students, the fact that women are sexually harassed on university campuses is a real cause for concern. The crime of rape is common in our country. And child rape is on the increase. From reports in newspapers and online, it seems the [rape] situation is getting worse. This, we believe, is due to the poor rule of law. I want the government to handle this.

SWA: You asked about the relations between the government and student unions. I would like to address this. As you’ve said, the relationship has not been warm over successive periods. But that is not our intention. Many believe that student unions always have a rebellious streak. We need to counter this view. The relationship between us depends on how the government views the universities where we are based, and the needs and activities of student unions, how the government treats us, whether it meets those needs and whether it constructively responds to our activities or makes unfair arrests. The main point is to find common ground. For our part, we are always thinking about the needs of students and people. I don’t know what the government thinks about. The relationship is shaped by the gap between these views. This is my answer to part of your question. Another thing you asked about is how the government would respond to our demands; I would say it’s up to them. We did not press these demands only when we met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We filed complaints with the Education Ministry and the regional government when students who participated in the 7 July event were arrested, and when female students experienced sexual harassment. Unless these cases are addressed, we will continue to present our demands to the concerned departments. Mainly what we want is for those cases to be addressed and for our requests to be granted. Depending on the situation and the circumstances, the means available [to us] are to protest or to negotiate. It is up to the government how it handles that.