Half a Century Later, War on Students Continues

By Aung Zaw 6 July 2012

Since Burma began its political opening last year, the peacock symbol has made something of a comeback. But the “fighting peacock” is not just a figure on the flag of the opposition National League for Democracy—it is also, and more importantly, an emblem of Burma’s student unions, which have historically played a leading role in resisting military rule.

Long after leaving their campuses, Burma’s student activists remain a potent political force. Many become national leaders, either in the government or in the the opposition. But despite their influence, the peacock’s wings remain clipped.

It was 50 years ago tomorrow that Burma—or at least its military rulers—declared war on students. On July  7, 1962, the newly installed dictatorship of Gen Ne Win dynamited the Student Union building at the University of Rangoon, which had become a hotbed of dissent against army rule. It was the beginning of an ignominious chapter in Burmese history that continues to this day.

Even now, Burma’s quasi-civilian government is wary of any attempt to revive memories of that day. Students have been warned not to hold ceremonies or gatherings to mark the occasion, lest they “open old wounds,” as one official put it.

True to the spirit of their struggle to restore democracy, however, some activists have decided to go ahead with their plans to mark this infamous anniversary anyway. Indeed, since last year, there has been a campaign, spearheaded by a new generation of student leaders such as Kyaw Ko Ko and De Nyein Linn, to reestablish long-banned student unions.

Despite harassment and pressure from the authorities, these efforts continue. This semi-underground movement has even begun to get the notice it deserves in local journals, several which have published articles about the Student Union building and the former glory of Rangoon University, which remains largely off-limits more than two decades after it was closed by Ne Win’s successors in 1988.

Dozens of unarmed students were killed when the Student Union building—which was at the forefront of the Burma’s independence struggle a generation earlier—was destroyed. At the time, Ne Win infamously declared that this was not the end of his campaign to bring students to heel. “I have no alternative but to meet knife with knife and spear with spear,” he said, warning that worse was to come if the students didn’t back off.

Twenty-six years later, however, when his regime was tottering under the weight of the massive student-led pro-democracy uprising of 1988, Ne Win denied that it was his decision to mount a massacre on the campus of Burma’s most prestigious university. In an emotional televised speech, he put the blame squarely on the shoulders of his former deputy, Aung Gyi.

But Hla Shwe, a veteran student leader in the 1960s, told me that Ne Win, Aung Gyi and several other senior leaders all had full knowledge of plans to use lethal force against the students. He said they even had a temporary command center at the nearby Burma Broadcasting Station on Pyay Road, from which they issued the orders to shoot the students and dynamite the union building.

Despite this, however, Ne Win’s immediate successor, Lt-Col Sein Lwin—known as the “Butcher of Rangoon” for his role in gunning down peaceful protesters in 1988—kept up the pretense that there were doubts about who was responsible for the 1962 incident. “We first need an independent commission to investigate the matter,” he said.

Nearly 24 years after those remarks, and a full half-century since the mass murders of July 7, 1962, no one has yet been held accountable for the crime of killing unarmed students. None of the student leaders I met in Rangoon recently said anything about seeking revenge, but they said they wanted to see the student union restored and the perpetrators held publicly accountable.

This is not merely a matter of setting the historical record set straight. The assault on students that began in 1962 has claimed many victims since, including prominent student leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, who have spent much of their lives behind bars for speaking out against military rule. Even now, another crackdown is not unthinkable.

Of course, the casualties of this ongoing offensive against students include not only activists, but two whole generations of young people who have been deprived of a decent education. Universities have been starved of funding and shut repeatedly over the past five decades because of the perceived threat that students represent to Burma’s paranoid generals.

In a rare sign that Burma’s rulers may be beginning to lose their fear of students, presidential adviser Dr U Myint wrote a letter of appeal to President Thein Sein earlier this year urging him to reopen Rangoon University to undergraduates and rebuild the Student Union through public donations. He said that reopening the university would be “an important landmark in national reconciliation and a memorable way to start a new chapter in our history.”

But during my second trip to Burma this year, I saw only reminders of the sad state of Burmese education when I visited the Rangoon University campus. Dormitories and other building lay empty and neglected. A emaciated stray dog that approached me when I walked past a canteen I had used in the 1980s was probably one of the only full-time residents still there.

Even more disturbing than this evidence of disdain for learning, however, were rumors that some prominent local businessmen had their eye on the campus. In his open letter to Thein Sein, U Myint also raised this concern, writing that sky-rocketing real estate prices in Rangoon “have provided massive incentives to big private firms to pursue lucrative business ventures on university property. This gives another urgent reason to get the students and faculty back on the campus to prevent further encroachment.”

When I met U Myint during my visit to Rangoon, he told me that a businessman had indeed expressed a strong interest in acquiring the campus. However, thanks to the strong public support that his letter enjoyed, Rangoon University appears to be safe from the predations of profit-seeking developers—for now.

For most of Burma’s ruling generals and ex-generals, the fate of Rangoon University is much less of an issue than it is to U Myint, who studied there. But if the new government wants to revive the country’s fortunes, it will have to do more than just let investors run free—it will also have to liberate the minds of its young people. And there can be no better way to do that than to face the past and tell Burma’s students that they are no longer seen as the enemy.