Will the Centenary of Myanmar’s Yangon University Lead to Re-Establishing the University Student Union Building?

By The Irrawaddy 12 December 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Yangon University has turned 100 years old. Dec. 9—the 10th Waning Day of Tazaungmone on Myanmar’s lunar calendar—also marks the centenary of National Day.

We’ll discuss what student unions are planning for the centenary of Yangon University and National Day, which played an important role in Myanmar’s history, and what they will be doing to re-establish the Rangoon [Yangon] University Students Union [RUSU] building, which was dynamited in 1962.

Yangon University Student Union [YUSU] chairman Ko Nyi Nyi Zaw and U Ko Ko Gyi, one of the student leaders of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABSFU) in 1988 and now the chairman of the People’s Party, join me for the discussion. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Ko Nyi Nyi Zaw, Yangon University turned 100 years old on Dec. 1. And Dec. 9—the 10th Waning Day of Tazaungmone on Myanmar’s lunar calendar—is the centenary of the National Day. From a political perspective, student activities should be highlighted at this time. Taking a look back 100 years, the student movement began in opposition to colonial education, and then developed to become a national liberation and anti-fascist movement. After independence, students supported the pro-democracy movement, and in our times, students led the movement against military dictatorship. Student unions led from the front in political activities. The YUSU has announced on its Facebook page that it will re-establish the student union building where student movements were born, the student union’s square and so on. Ko Nyi Nyi Zaw, could you explain the stances and plans of student unions at this historic moment?

Nyi Nyi Zaw: We made an announcement, but basically it was not about the student union. The ruling government has formed a centenary celebration committee and sub-committees and taken the lead role in holding celebrations. At first, the YUSU participated in the committee and sub-committees. But after attending meetings, it appeared that we would have to work according to the agenda of the government. And that agenda does not reflect the interests and wishes of students. So, we resigned from the committees and sub-committees. But we have continued to participate as observers.

The Thitpok tree, Judson, Convocation Hall, Adipadi Road are all landmarks of Yangon University. But the old student union’s square right beside the entrance has been consigned to obscurity. We plan to erect a … sign and a plaque so that not only students but also visitors to the university know what kind of place it was in the past.

YN: Yes, it is fair to say that the history of student movements has been barely highlighted while Yangon University is celebrating its centenary. The RUSU [building], which played a crucial role in politics and the student movements of the country, was dynamited in 1962 by General Ne Win. After that, student unions were deemed illegal.

Though there have not been legally formed student unions in our times, there was a student union spirit in our soul. The student union spirit was passed down from generation to generation until the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

U Ko Ko Gyi, you and other student leaders of the temporary committee of the ABSFU sought to re-establish the RUSU [building] during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. U Ko Ko Gyi, how did students hand down the student union ideal and fighting peacock [the symbol of student unions] spirit while the very concept of student unions was censored by the one-party dictatorship?

Ko Ko Gyi: Before the 1988 uprising, the fighting peacock symbol was only known by students who were interested in politics. Most of the students did not know what a student union was when we were at the university. It is worth noting that… I still have documentary photos… I attended as a first-year student in international relations and governance in 1984.

When we organized a ceremony to pay respects to teachers, we made backdrops of two peacocks heading face to face. A teacher who knew about the political significance of the peacock symbol was worried and asked if it would be OK. We gave him the excuse that the design would not look good without the peacock figures and we were determined to use them. We started to use peacock symbols at the respect-paying ceremony at the Recreation Center [RC] on the Hline Campus in 1985. Most of the students did not even notice it. At the time, possessing the peacock flag was criminalized, like holding illegal weapons.

Old student union leaders handed over peacock flags and ABFSU stamps when the 1988 pro-democracy uprising took place. It was the passing along of a historical legacy. Student unions pressed their demands [for democracy] after Ko Phone Maw and U Soe Naing died in March of 1988. But at the time, the government did not concede to the students’ demands. It was only after the 1988 uprising that it offered to lay foundations [for a new student union building] happily together.

I was at the time vice-chairman of the ABSFU. Min Ko Naing was the chairman and Moe Thee Zun was the general secretary of the federation. We issued a statement that we would not deviate from the path of our public fight for democracy. At the time our view was that the government had refused to grant us student unions when we asked for it and attempted to appease us only after a mass public movement. So, we turned down the proposal [to cooperate on a new student union building]. [The military regime] made a second offer through Saya U San Tin Aung [Shwebo] of the Yangon University Teachers Union. They asked if we would like to have the building rebuilt in its original style or would we design a new one by ourselves or whether they could help design the new building. We issued a statement that we would continue to stick to our stand [not to accept the government’s proposal to cooperate on the student union, and to demand democracy together with the people] and would not deviate from our public fight for democracy.

My point is the student movement always gave priority to public issues over the issue of the formation of student unions. The student movement continuously focused on the cause of democracy and anti-dictatorship for all people, treating student unions as a secondary issue. We also gave priority to the people over ourselves in the 1988 uprising.

YN: That reminds me of then President Dr. Maung Maung saying, “Let’s lay a foundation together for the student union building.” It has been 32 years since then, and the building still remains in uncertainty. A committee was formed [to build a student union] under the U Thein Sein government and U Ko Ko Gyi, you were on the committee. But the relationship between the government and the students was not very good. When students marched in protest against the National Education Law [from Mandalay in 2015], the government did not allow them to enter Yangon, but carried out a crackdown on student protesters in Bago’s Letpadaung, which further soured relations between the two sides.

Under the National League for Democracy, there were meetings on rebuilding the RUSU [building]. And Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein actively participated in the meeting, according to media reports. But then, we don’t know if there has been any progress. Ko Nyi Nyi Zaw, what is your view on the part of the YUSU?

NNZ: The government revealed its plan to rebuild the RUSU building during the time of our predecessor YUSU executive committee. Former executive committees of the YUSU and ABFSU held discussions on the issue, and we members of the younger generation also participated in it. What we said at the discussions was, we boycotted the 2015 National Education Law because student unions were not allowed to operate legally and freely; and we were oppressed and restricted in reality, even though the government said it was fulfilling the demands of student unions.

So we questioned what the RUSU building was for when student unions could not be formed legally. We agreed that priority must be given to legalization of student unions rather than re-building the RUSU. So student unions from different universities discussed the issue, and opposed the government’s plan to rebuild the RUSU building.

YN: U Ko Ko Gyi, what else do you want to say about rebuilding the RUSU [building]?

KKG: I was released from prison in 2012. The difference in Myanmar’s political landscape before our arrest and after our release was that there was the 2008 Constitution, and the government that emerged out of that Constitution. Many political prisoners were released and exiled activists were allowed to return to the country. And there was relative openness and freedom. A committee “to revive Yangon University and establish a student union” was formed.

At the time, Sayagyi Dagon Taya, [a member of] the first generation of students from 1936—a contemporary of General Aung San—was still alive. So we formed a committee consisting of different generations, for example—Uncle U Hla Shwe representing the July 7, 1962, event; 1974-75 student leaders; 88 Generation students; and student leaders of 2007 and so on. The committee organized fundraising activities like publishing calendars and exhibiting paintings. With her approval, we made State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi patron of that committee. However, the committee failed to link its activities with students’ efforts to rebuild the RUSU building. And that committee faded away.

At the time, I proposed a design for the RUSU building. Though the building was destroyed above the ground, there remained foundations in the ground. The military regime had planted trees on the student union’s lawn with the intention of preventing students from gathering. The landscape does not please the eye at all with Royal Poinciana trees being planted in a mess. As time goes by, the roots of those trees are damaging the original foundation of the building. So I have continuously called for removing those trees from the time of Rector Dr. Aung Thu to the time of Rector Dr. Pho Kaung [of Yangon University]. Still those trees have not yet been cut down. The question is whether the approval of the military chief or the 25 percent of lawmakers appointed by the military is required to remove those trees.

What I proposed at the time was to preserve the foundation lines of the RUSU building, and re-build the building with a transparent floor. So all visitors would remember there used to be the original RUSU building. It would also provide serious historical reminders that violence can’t solve problems. I also called for the architectural style of the new building to match the colonial-era buildings nearby. Because the university library and hospital are on the other side of the road, I suggested building an underpass to link to those facilities. The main requirement is to remove trees; only then can the foundation lines of the original building be preserved. We don’t know how much damage the roots have caused to the foundation. My suggestions were welcomed. But then, the committee ceased to function.

Yes, what student leaders of the current generation have pointed out is important. The legal student union is the soul of the building. The RUSU [building] itself is a historical monument. It turned out national and independence leaders. And student unions led from the front in fighting the dictatorship in successive periods. Re-establishing the RUSU building, which played a crucial role in democracy and anti-dictatorship, and the legalization of student unions are inextricably linked.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

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