From the Archive

The University Behind Bars

By Kay Latt 8 August 2017

Kay Latt was once a contributor to The Irrawaddy and now currently works for the Myanmar State Counselor’s Office. On this 29th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, The Irrawaddy revisits his article from 2010, in which he reflects on ‘education’ in prison.

One day in March 1988, when I was a third year student at the Rangoon Arts and Science University, the noise of loud shouting reached our classroom from the recreation center.

Our teacher left the room to investigate, and some of us followed. There was a crowd in front of the Convocation Hall, listening to speeches and shouting slogans.

That afternoon, riot police intervened and arrested a number of students, piling them into a truck. We blocked the truck’s way in Pyay Road and threw stones at the police. They responded with tear gas—which I tasted for the first time in my life.

The riot police mounted a counterattack and I ran into the Pegu hostel (Pago Saung), where friends of mine lived, and hid there until the police withdrew.

Later, I learnt that some students had died on the banks of Inya Lake. Others had been beaten and arrested as they made for the Rangoon Institute of Technology.

In June, when the universities briefly reopened, students again gathered in front of the recreation center at the Rangoon Arts and Science University and protested against the suppression of the students’ demonstrations by the authorities.

Like many others, I wore a kerchief over my face as a disguise, but I removed it when one student leader fearlessly took his off. But I was very nervous as I returned home that day.

In August, demonstrations broke out all over the country and I joined other students on the streets of Rangoon, shouting slogans and wearing arm bands, white shirts and Kachin longyi (sarong), the students’ uniform.

Then, came the coup d’état. I didn’t know what to do—whether to follow my friends to the Thai-Burmese border and join their armed struggle, or to remain inside the country and to work for change from the underground or within a political party. I decided on the latter course of action.

I joined the National League for Democracy, but not long after the 1990 election I was arrested because of my political involvement.

After about seven months, during which no charge was laid against me, a prison warden toured the cells drawing up a list of the imprisoned students. I was filled with hope that this meant we would be freed in time for the rumored reopening of the universities, which had been closed since June 1988.

On May 15, 1991, all universities across the country reopened.

The prison authorities ordered me to collect my belongings, and I said farewell to my cheering comrades, who thought I was being freed. But it was a vain hope—I was arraigned before a military court and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, along with a number of other students.

There is a saying that “he who opens a school’s door closes a prison’s.” But that wasn’t to be in my case—prison was my school and university for nine long years.

Prison is actually an exclusive university with very high admission requirements. I was admitted anyway…