Guest Column

In Burma, Student Unions Must Learn Their Place

By Poe Sanchaung 19 September 2014

Recent protests against the National Education Bill staged by university student unions across Burma have given me food for thought. As a graduate of an education system created by the country’s former military government, I have expected a lot from Burma’s nascent student unions, which were nonexistent until 2010.

The structure and objectives of student unions will vary slightly in relation to the political situation of a given country. Nonetheless, the prime objective of all student unions should be none other than guaranteeing the rights of students. With student unions more active in Burma these days, we need to assess their actions to determine whether or not they are striving for this principal goal.

I came to notice the student unions in Mandalay when medical students there held a press conference after being denied the chance to take an exam because they had failed to meet a class attendance requirement. In subsequent press conferences in Mandalay, student unions took up a range of causes, distributing pamphlets urging an end to the war in Kachin State and lighting candles in a vigil for peace. Nearly 50 student union members from Myingyan, Taungoo, Mandalay and Monywa districts later staged demonstrations against the arrests of farmers in western Pegu Division’s Thaegon Township.

To be frank, these issues are not directly concerned with students. As such, student unions should not get involved in them. Personally, I think this is the reason that student unions’ membership is unimpressive, and why the unions have little influence over the students they claim to represent. The political landscape is different from that of the era of Gen. Aung San and 88 Generation student leaders like Min Ko Naing and Moe Thee Zun. Student unions need to be aware of this, especially when there are matters affecting universities that their students must proactively address.

The most important thing for the unions is that they have a thorough understanding of what students need, which students’ rights are being denied, and how to handle these issues. There is no shortage of practical causes in need of attention. For example, university students must pay up to 1,000 kyats (US$1) for tutorial and practical notebooks that should cost no more than 100 kyats to produce. Likewise, textbook prices are too high.

It is also unacceptable that university students are required to buy their universities’ annual commemorative publications, at a cost of 3,000 to 4,000 kyats, whenever they enroll for a semester. Students are also forced to pay fees to park their motorbikes on university campuses.

These are the problems students are confronted with daily. If these problems seem trivial and unworthy of concern, I would like to offer another example: Today, scholarships are granted to Burmese students in cooperation with foreign universities. However, most universities are failing to adequately publicize scholarship eligibility criteria, and in addition, there is corruption and bias in the scholarship selection process.

In an improvement from the past, universities in Rangoon and Mandalay now provide hostels and are also building new on-campus accommodation for students. Nonetheless, not all students that come from outside their universities’ host cities are lucky enough to get a place in university-provided housing because of mismanagement and malfeasance in that selection process.

Through press conferences and demonstrations, student unions need to speak up for those students whose rights are being denied so that they can win back their trust. The unions should take a leading role in urging the Union government to furnish university faculties with teaching aids and university libraries with comprehensive reference materials.

Students would support student unions if the latter spoke up for them while steering clear of politics and partisanship.

The National Education Bill is now awaiting final parliamentary approval to come into force. News reports have stated that student union leaders have expressed opposition to the bill because they were not allowed to participate in drafting the legislation, which furthermore still allows for centralized authority over universities and fails to fully guarantee students’ rights.

The criteria by which the leadership of universities’ so-called student unions is appointed should be subject to scrutiny. Though opponents of the National Education Bill have taken on names indicating that they represent “all” of the country’s university students, their credentials as representative voices ought to be questioned. According to the July 4 issue of Mizzima Daily, the student union of Yadanarpon University, where thousands are enrolled, is composed of only about 10 students. The report also said that unions at the dental, foreign language and technological universities in Mandalay are made up of only around 50 members each.

Most of Burma’s student unions came into existence in 2012 and one would expect their memberships to have increased over the past two years, but these groups are still just a tiny fraction of the country’s university enrollees.

Student unions exist to serve the interests of students. So far on this count, they are struggling to score a passing grade.

Poe Sanchaung is a regular contributor to Burmese-language dailies and weeklies. He is studying for a postgraduate degree in English at Mandalay University.