Young People, the Old Guard and Enduring Antagonism

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 11 March 2015

Burma’s military-turned-civilian government has resown a seed of hatred between itself and the nation’s students by brutally cracking down on student protestors who have for months been demanding education reform. It was a rash and unwise move, the consequences of which are unpredictable.

On Tuesday, baton-wielding police viciously beat up dozens of students and their supporters and arrested 127 people in Letpadan, Pegu Division, about 80 miles northwest of Rangoon, where students had been blockaded for days.

The world has witnessed photos and video clips of the brutality, with police indiscriminately attacking protestors, journalists, young women and Buddhist monks in equal measure. Particularly deplorable police conduct included the clubbing of injured victims of the crackdown inside an ambulance at the scene of the protest, and the wanton destruction of one of the students’ vehicles.

But then, we’ve seen this kind of hostility toward students demanding change before.

Dating back to 1962 when a military coup brought Gen. Ne Win to power, students and Burma’s former military regimes have historically had a deeply antagonistic relationship. This was due in no small part to generations of students serving as standard bearers for pro-democracy movements. Demanding the vote, they have instead often received the brunt of the regime’s ire.

When the late dictator Ne Win staged the 1962 coup, his regime dynamited the historic Student Union building on the campus of Rangoon University.

Generation after generation of students has asked previous military governments to allow them to rebuild the building, to no avail. The incumbent President Thein Sein’s administration has not yet offered a different outcome.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

After Thein Sein took office in March 2011, a thawing in relations between students and the government seemed just plausible. His rhetoric was reform and the democracy that young people had long fought for appeared finally to be in the offing, a hope spurred on by the release of prominent former student leaders turned political prisoners.

For a time, antagonism was on the ebb.

But few Burmese saw that trend as inexorable, knowing as we did that the current government was in many ways simply the progeny of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

It is hard to say how badly the events of the past week will set back student-government relations, but certainly the smell of antagonism is in the air again.

In savagely repressing these students’ right to free expression, this purportedly civilian government revealed the immature understanding that it has of the very concept of democracy. Intolerance toward peaceful demonstrations is fundamentally authoritarian, and will not soon be forgotten by students who were simply demanding the chance to help shape their own futures.

Though their education reform movement appears to have been crushed for the time being, it is unlikely that this is the end of the fight. If the students mobilize once again, the government will have a choice to make: Re-employ its tried and true strategy of repression, or allow the students’ demands to be aired in an unhostile political arena. One path offers the possibility to begin healing wounds that date back more than 50 years; the other would only serve to perpetuate a vicious cycle of antagonism.

For months, that antagonism has stemmed from 11 changes that the students want to see made to the controversial National Education Law. If the government does not offer the students a right to be heard, Naypyidaw might soon find a growing groundswell for more wholesale change.

We’ve seen it before. Having been toppled by nationwide student-led protests in 1988, this is something to which Ne Win would certainly attest.