Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Students Do Not Need to be Afraid Anymore’

By The Irrawaddy 4 June 2016

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the role of student unions in the political transition. Central executive members of the Nationwide Federation of Student Unions [NFSU] Ko Zeyar Lwin and Ma Ei Swe Myat will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

You two were among those who held talks with Education Minister Dr U Myo Thein Gyi about students unions last Sunday. Although student unions are still not officially recognized, I heard that the minister promised to set up offices and allow student unions to participate when charters are drafted concerning universities. This is a sign that the government has started to accept student unions. What is the attitude of the student unions toward the government now? Have student unions changed their attitude and are they now willing to cooperate with the new civilian government?

Zeyar Lwin: We met the education minister at the Higher Education Department in Yangon as per his invitation on Sunday, May 25. He invited us to discuss ongoing problems in regards to students and the education system in our country. It was our first meeting with the new government. It was a crucial meeting. We used to only be able to hold four-party talks [held with representatives from the former government, Parliament, university students and the local civil society group National Network for Education Reform]. But it came at a cost—we could meet the government only after we held protest marches and demonstrations and pressed for our demands. But the new government has invited us to negotiate before we have issued demands.

We met [the education minister] because we cannot disregard this government. Previously, student unions opposed the government because it was repressive. It only cared for itself, did not serve the interests of the people and indulged in power. But the current government was elected by the people and is led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Htin Kyaw. People have expectations of the new government and hope for the best. We have no reason to neglect a government that people believe in. So, we met and discussed matters related to student unions, students and the education system. That meeting was our first step in cooperating with the new government.

YN: Ma Ei Swe Myat, what is your view of the outcome of that meeting?

Ei Swe Myat: The new government was chosen by the people. Like student unions, the government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Htin Kyaw faced many difficulties to achieve what it has. It is fair to say that they can understand us. We students gathered, and together with the people, opposed the unfairness of the previous government. Because student unions and the new government share a lot in terms of beliefs and goals, we have decided to cooperate on education issues. We hope that we will be able to cooperate smoothly because we share the same goal.

YN: Since 1962, student unions have not been recognized by successive military-backed regimes. But the new government is not as tough on student unions as its predecessors and now you have seen prospects of the government legitimizing student unions. Is it fair to say it is high time students get united and establish a student union that can democratically represent all students? How do you envision such a union?

ZL: Yes, it is time we students collectively speak up for educational reform, a switch to a democratic education system and student rights—all of which we demanded in the past. But, democracy allows people to have different views. Let’s see how much we will be able to negotiate those different views and move forward.

Personally, I think it is not possible, for the time being, for students across the country to unite and take collaborative action because there are different views and doubts among the students. There are people who question the representation of student unions and there are people who do not want to work under the umbrella of an organization. There is the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABSFU), and there is the NFSU. Some students joined ABSFU and others joined NSU. There are also individual student unions that want to work independently and ethnic student unions. One thing I can tell you for sure is that all so-called student unions in this country do not represent all the students. We students gathered together in our circles to form whatever was possible at the time. This is how student unions were formed.

But, among all of the student unions, ABSFU and NSU have a certain degree of authority because the chairpersons, vice chairpersons and executives of university student unions under these groups were elected by popular vote. Even if they don’t represent entire universities, they do represent the student unions. There are also universities under NSU whose student unions do represent entire universities. For example, the student unions of Thanlyin Technological University and West Yangon Technological University represent the entire student body. At the Yangon University of Economics, key people are elected by the student unions.

YN: Previously, the country was under a military regime and the government—which was not democratically elected—oppressed student unions. Circumstances did not allow for student unions to be established democratically. Ma Ei Swe Myat, do you see prospects for student unions to be set up through elections, beginning at individual universities and later at a nationwide student conference?

ESM: For the time being, it is not possible. The new government has not been in power for very long. In the past, we had to form student unions against rectors and the previous government. Yangon West Technological University and Thanlyin Technological University were able to form student unions that represented the entire university because students got along with university authorities or rectors. It was difficult to hold elections [for student unions] in instances where there were hardline rectors. In the case of Yangon University, the current executive board is an interim one. The constitution is being drafted now and only through an election based on that constitution will we be able to elect a student union that represents the entire university.

Previously, we could not achieve representation, but it was not because we did not make the effort. We did all we could, but there was oppression from above. Maybe teachers and rectors were also afraid. There were active students, but they were discouraged by threats from teachers, for example, saying that they would be disqualified for a master’s degree if they engaged in such issues. But we have a new government now and we hope that the views of rectors and teachers will also change. Teachers are our second parents who can fulfill our wishes. They inevitably had to oppress us under previous government because of their fear.

But now the new government is in office and a new semester will start soon. We don’t know yet what we are going to face until the universities open but we believe there will be changes. It is time for universities to have executive boards that represent entire universities. And we hope this happens. Teacher’s views have changed following the power transfer. There must have been students who were interested in politics and who now want to participate in student unions. And they do not need to be afraid anymore. The existing student unions are ready to make sure they are represented.

ZL: You have talked about forming a student union that could represent universities across the country by holding elections at different levels. This is the hope of every student union. The question is if each of over 160 universities and colleges across the country could form their own union. If the higher education law makes student unions compulsory, then all universities and colleges across the country have to form them. If the law only grants the right to form student unions, then it is not compulsory and we can choose to form student unions or not. Universities that want to form student unions have to include provisions about it in their charters. The rector, administration and students can decide if they want to form a union for their university. If they want to form one, they can include provisions in their university charter and hold elections.

YN: The current situation suggests that we have good reason for high hopes. Things are developing toward a situation where there will no longer be government oppression, but instead cooperation with student unions and teachers to shape the national education system. And personally I think students can reach their goal if they try. Thank you for your contributions.