Burma’s Student Protesters at Odds With Older Activists as Reforms Stall

By Jared Ferrie & Simon Webb 16 March 2015

RANGOON — Kyaw Min Yu’s first political rally was almost his last.

On March 16, 1988, he joined a group of Rangoon students protesting against the military junta that then ran Burma. They had reached a lakeside spot called White Bridge when police and soldiers attacked.

By some accounts, nearly 100 students were clubbed to death or drowned in what has come to be known as the Red Bridge incident, the day 27 years ago when the White Bridge turned red with blood.

“Sometimes, I can still hear the sound of the police’s red wood sticks hitting students’ heads,” said Kyaw Min Yu, who managed to escape and became one of the leaders of the famous anti-junta group, the 88 Generation Students.

Students are again protesting in Burma and police have responded harshly. Kyaw Min Yu, now 46, says he has regular contact with the students and has given informal advice but he declined to give details.

But it’s clear that some of the older generation of activists, including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, are at odds with the students over their tactics.

Suu Kyi now fights her battles in Parliament as leader of the opposition and is engaged in a fraught reform process with the semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein. The students have little faith the government is committed to completing Burma’s transition to democracy.

The students still revere Suu Kyi and are reluctant to criticize her. But their isolation from the reform process they worry is going nowhere is likely to push them to take to the streets again and radicalize Burma’s politics.

“I never believed in this reform process,” said Lin Htet Naing, one of the leaders of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABSFU).

“We students always said the government was lying. The same people control the wealth and operate the system as under military rule. They just changed uniform.”

After 49 years of military rule, Thein Sein’s semi-civilian government took power in 2011 and made wide-ranging and rapid reforms that initially inspired optimism that Burma would become fully democratic. But the reforms have stalled.

Thein Sein and many of his cabinet colleagues are former generals. Serving officers are guaranteed a quarter of the seats in Parliament under a Constitution written by the last military government.

Last week, riot police used wooden batons to forcibly disperse students protesting against a new education law, arresting over 125 of them. The crackdown in the town of Letpadan, near Rangoon, was a reminder that some hardliners remained in positions of power and could derail the reforms.

The differences with the groups in the formal opposition came to the fore when students continued to protest against the education law even after the government accepted their demands for change. The students do not believe that Parliament will enact the changes to legislation they say will stifle academic freedom.

“We want to see the written agreement,” Lin Htet Naing said.

Suu Kyi’s advisers say she is frustrated that students will not give the parliamentary process time to play out.

“The students demanded results by a certain date,” Nyan Win, one of the top leaders at Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, told Reuters. “She told them that would be impossible. They don’t understand the process of Parliament.”

The 88 Generation, too, says the students need to have faith in the reform.

“They don’t trust the parliamentary process,” Ko Ko Gyi, one of the 88 Generation’s top leaders, told Reuters.

“And it is true that Parliament doesn’t represent everybody. But they should celebrate what they have won. If we want any reform, we need to establish the proper institutions to make laws.”

Suu Kyi returned to Burma just weeks after the Red Bridge incident in 1988 and became the icon of the movement to unseat the military regime. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Despite being banned under the Constitution from becoming president, she remains committed to reforms through a managed process. The NLD will contest an election later this year regardless of whether or not she can be president.

But the links between revolution and student protesters is part of the country’s history.

Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Gen. Aung San, was a student leader when he began opposing the British colonial government.

The ABSFU traces its ancestry back to the students union initially founded by Aung San in 1935.

Kyaw Min Yu sees many parallels between his generation and the current crop of students.

“They are just like me, like I was,” he said in an interview. “They are in their 20s, I was about 20 then. They will be shocked and nervous now, after their first experience of violence.”

For the students, despite the differences, Suu Kyi remains the model.

“There is no other leader,” said Lin Htet Naing said. “There is no other choice.”