Burmese President Thein Sein’s economic advisor has called for the restoration of Rangoon University and its Students Union building in an open letter which has gained much public support.
U Myint, chief of the Centre for Economic and Social Development of the Myanmar Development Resource Institute and a former economics lecturer, distributed the proposal at a discussion on agricultural development policies in the former capital on Saturday.
Within a couple of days his campaign had generated a huge following and widespread discussion on social media networks such as Facebook.
U Myint, who was an undergraduate student at Rangoon University in the 1960s, said in his letter that the institution is just like the Irrawaddy River as “it belongs to everyone in Burma.”
Rangoon University was one of the most prestigious seats of learning in Asia for many years, but “has lost much of its former glory and splendor” just like the Irrawaddy River, he said.
U Myint added that a unified, clear and strong stand on restoring the university was “public sentiment” just like the campaign to save the Irrawaddy, referring to nationwide protests against the Chinese-backed Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin State.
Maung Wuntha, a prominent journalist who studied at Rangoon University from 1961-67, told The Irrawaddy that, “Saya U Myint is right and has pointed out the most important and necessity tasks to accomplish.”
“Now is the right time to respond to the call for the reestablishment of Rangoon University with public support.” agreed Maung Wuntha.
The Rangoon campus, an original hub of the students’ political movement since British colonial rule, has been at the center of major events throughout Burmese history. But regular classes have not been held there since the 1990s after the former military junta systematically moved universities to suburban areas in order to quell dissenter activities.
U Myint records the views of the university’s lecturers who must teach at new campuses on the city’s outskirts and say that, “our biggest and enduring wish is to return to the main university campus in Yangon.”
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, Hla Myint, a former physics professor at Mandalay University and advisor of the Tatmadaw (armed forces) Engineering Institute, said, “Moving the universities to remote areas for security reasons has caused many problems for the teachers and students.”
U Myint also suggested restoring the Students Union building, reinstating classes at the Rangoon campus as well as bringing back hostels and all the necessary infrastructure of the union.
“The new Students Union building,” which was a sensitive issue under the previous regime, “will be a landmark in the national reconciliation process and fill a void that has been in our hearts for some time,” he said.
“I recall the facilities there consisted of a small reading room and library, a restaurant, a barber shop, meeting rooms and a recreation room with a ping-pong table.”
Maung Wuntha said, “It is going to be 50 years this coming July 8.” He was a student leader in 1962 when the union building was demolished by dictator Ne Win after protests against his coup a few months previously.
The students’ demonstration was violently quashed on July 7 with their headquarters blown up the very next day to deter any further dissent.
Kyaw Ko Ko, the chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Union (ABSFU) organizing committee, said, “the letter of U Myint echoes the view of the ABSFU, which sees Rangoon University as part of our national heritage.”
“And the ABFSU organizing committee has also been recently demanding that classes are reopened at the campus and for the Students Union building to be rebuilt,” he added.
The student leader shares U Myint’s views regarding the importance of preserving the campus and protecting it from the advances of businessmen in post-sanctions Burma as it enjoys a prime location in the center of the city.
U Myint has called for the Burmese authorities to use its assets wisely while the country opens up to economic development. Although current student leaders have welcomed his letter, they have emphasized that other actions are also important.
“There needs to be an improvement in the level of teaching and curriculums from the primary and secondary levels in order to reach the quality of learning of the university campus,” said Ye Yint Kyaw, another leader of the ABFSU upper Burma organizing committee.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy, D Nyein Lin, a student activist and former political prisoner, also said that there must first be changes in teachers’ attitudes as many obstacles to learning remain.
“Even students who were imprisoned for the students’ movement are still not allowed to return to class,” he explained. “The students also should be allowed to form a union without being pressured by their teachers or professors.”
U Myint is positive that the current government will support bringing Rangoon University back to life and added that “it will be a gift to the youth of the country.”