RANGOON — The soldiers began to shoot students at Rangoon University at 6:30 pm Hla Shwe watched, cowering in a nearby building, as his friends died. “I heard the shouting,” he recalled. “They shot whoever they saw.”
It was July 7, 1962, the day rage at the military’s recent coup boiled over and a date now seared into the memory of Hla Shwe, who is 75 years old.
“I got the idea that if they used the gun against students, why shouldn’t we use guns to fight them?” he said.
When President Barack Obama speaks at Hla Shwe’s alma mater Monday, he will be treading on ground heavy with political and historical significance.
Since colonial times, the fight for change in Burma has begun on this leafy campus. It was a center of the struggle for independence against Britain and served as a launching point for pro-democracy protests in 1962, 1974, 1988 and 1996. Burma’s former military junta shut the dormitories in the 1990s fearing further unrest and forced most students to attend classes on satellite campuses on the outskirts of town.
Today, few students walk the broken pathways of what was once one of Asia’s finest universities. Birdsong fills the halls of cracked buildings. For many, the school — which was renamed University of Rangoon in 1989 — has today become a symbol of the country’s ruined education system and a monument to a half century of misrule.
“Obama knows very well about the history of Yangon University, I think. This is an enemy place for the authorities,” said Hla Shwe, who fought with Communist insurgents and spent 25 years as a political prisoner. “The American government is trying to show in a delicate way that they are not only working for the government but will also take care of the Burmese people.”
A movement has been building within Burma to reclaim the university’s history and restore it to its former glory. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly stressed the importance of upgrading the country’s feeble school system and has been fighting in Parliament to repair the campus as part of sweeping educational reforms. U Myint, an adviser to Burma’s reformist president, Thein Sein, in May wrote an open letter urging the government to fill the campus’s empty classrooms with students, reopen the dormitories and reconstruct the Student Union building, which the junta blew up the day after Hla Shwe watched his friends get shot.
“For those who have reservations about our students and young people forming associations like other members of our society, the question we need to ask ourselves is: when we are striving so hard for reconciliation on many fronts, even with foreigners who have not been particularly kind to us, then why not also with our own young people?” wrote U Myint.
The government ramped up education spending in the last budget but critics say it hasn’t moved boldly enough to catch up after years of neglect.
“If there is one area where America can help most it is in education,” said Thant Myint-U, another presidential adviser and a historian, who is the grandson of the late UN Secretary General U Thant. “Myanmar’s university system has been decimated after fifty years of army rule. American universities are still second to none. There’s no better way for the U.S. to project its soft power than through a real partnership to educate Myanmar’s brightest students.”
Some repair work on campus began about six months ago, but it is nothing compared with the frenzy of preparations for Obama’s arrival.
Inside the school’s Convocation Hall, where Obama will deliver his speech, is a riot of staple guns, buzz saws, sandpaper, hammers, spackle, drills, brooms, and fresh paint. But the facade of the building remains cracked with a black crust. Local superstition holds that scrubbing the building clean would unbalance the resigned calm that has settled on the campus and spark another round of unrest.
The curbs, lampposts and buildings that line the main road to the hall have been covered with fresh paint, but elsewhere the campus is a picture of moldering neglect. Broken desks lie stacked in the rain and shunted into unused cobwebby rooms. Teachers in bright blue sarongs walk past buildings sprouting weeds. Stray dogs nap in dilapidated corridors.
“This is a prominent place which taught students to love the truth and to fight for it,” said Zaw Zaw Min, who participated in the 1988 student demonstrations and, like his father and his son, served time as a political prisoner. He said before the recent renovations, the state of the campus made him deeply sad. “It was like a damaged city,” he said.
There is a real hunger for learning among many young people in Burma.
Aung Kaung Myat, 19, studies English at Rangoon’s University of Foreign Languages. “Everything is messed up,” he said. “I don’t want to blame my teachers. They are just the things in the system.”
Literature class involves reading out loud and poetry is mostly memorization, he said. For books in English, he heads to the well-stocked library of the American Center, a cultural outpost of the US Embassy in Rangoon. He got so frustrated at the poor syllabus and teachers who seemed to know little about their subjects that he wrote an angry letter to the Ministry of Education, which he convinced a bunch of his friends to sign. His professor found out before he could send it, called his parents and threatened to expel him, he said.
Still, he’d like to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Rangoon.
“Maybe it’s better than the Yangon University of Foreign Languages,” he said.
July San, 23, is pursuing a master’s in computer science at the University of Rangoon. She said there are only 5 students in her class.
“We want more students. More and more and more! And we don’t want to see this long grass anymore,” she said, gesturing at the weeds behind her.
“We should thank Obama,” she added. At least he managed to get the Convocation Hall spruced up in time for her graduation.