RANGOON — As part of a program of reforms to reopen a country tightly confined for half a century, Burma’s government last week reopened Rangoon University to undergraduates.
Most of the institution, once among the most prestigious schools in Asia, has been locked up and left empty for years. The university’s long history of radical campus politics has been on hold since it was shuttered in response to recurring student-led uprisings.
Hnin Hnin Hmway, a former political prisoner who was arrested in 1989 after taking part in demonstrations as a student, said it was important that as the university is reopened, restrictions were not placed on the new intake of students.
“We welcome that they have reopened the campus, but the university must be a place where the students are happy to learn, with free thought and creativity,” she said.
Hnin Hnin Hmway stressed the importance of an independent administrative body for the university, and said that more than the current intake of 1,000 students should be allowed to enroll.
“The number of students admitted is very low; we have a big campus. Why don’t they dare to have students on campus? I think they worry because students always protest against the government.”
Hnin Hnin Hmway, who spent three years in prison for her student activism, recalled that when she began studying at the university in 1988, it was a hub of debate and ideas.
“We exchanged news, information and knowledge there. The campus was a lively place where students enjoyed freedom,” she said.
But 1988 saw perhaps Burma’s most famous student-led protests, when the Rangoon University campus was ground zero for an uprising that almost toppled the government. Student demonstrations were violently put down by the military regime, but anger over the brutality of the authorities led to public discontent and popular protests. Those demonstrations were in turn met with more violent suppression by the ruling junta.
Amid a widespread crackdown on dissenters, the regime first closed the university and later dismantled it, as well as other centers of learning across Burma.
More protests in 1996 led the regime’s spy chief, Khin Nyunt, to shutter the university almost entirely.
“When Gen Khin Nyunt decided not to allow hostels on campus for students and locked up the university in 1996, the campus was left without students,” she said, pointing out the absurdity that Rangoon’s was probably the only university in the world to be devoid of students.
“The dictators did it to keep their power without considering the future of the country.”
In order to prevent students from gathering—and potentially organizing further uprisings—the regime in the 1990s created “remote and newly built universities” further from the center of Burma’s commercial capital, such as Dagon University, the University of East Yangon and University of West Yangon.
Protests took place sporadically from the start of military rule, which only gave way to a nominally civilian government, still dominated by former generals, in 2011.
Rangoon University students held peaceful demonstrations against “unjust university rules” on July 7, 1962, the year Gen Ne Win’s socialist government took power. The military ruler had security forces disperse the protesters and dynamited the Students’ Union building.
Gen Ne Win revoked the autonomy of the previously independent Rangoon University, and put the university under the control of the Directorate of Higher Education. The language of teaching was also changed from English to Burmese.
Hla Shwe, who edited the student magazine Oway (peacock’s call) in the 1960s—until it was banned under censorship—remembers repeated student protests on the campus from 1953 up to 1963.
The main concern for the new class of students was still academic independence, he said. “The problem is they need to allow academic freedom in education. That’s the most important thing,” Hla Shwe said.
According to Khin Zaw, a retired professor at Rangoon University, before government control, the university was staffed by a small number of highly qualified academics. But from 1964-65, as a system of education in line with Gen Ne Win’s “Burmese way to socialism” was brought in, the standard of education dropped.
“They focused on discipline. They didn’t give the students freedom,” said Khin Zaw. “Freedom comes first in a democratic system, and then discipline follows. So they controlled [the students].”
Even before independence, Rangoon University was a hotbed of radical politics. The country’s prominent anti-colonial leaders, including Gen Aung San, the country’s first prime minister, U Nu, and United Nations Secretary General U Thant, all studied at the university. It also produced prominent ethnic figures like Shan leader Khun Htun Oo and Mon leader Nai Ngwe Thein.
Until last week, only a handful of postgraduate students were using the vast leafy campus near Rangoon’s Inya Lake.
But the newly-reopened undergraduate program at Rangoon University is accepting 1,000 students for 19 arts and science degrees. Subjects include a political science program, although only a handful has reportedly signed up to the potentially controversial course. Students will have their subjects of study allocated based on their scores in a matriculation exam.
And students will now be allowed to stay in hostels on the university campus, which were once the breeding ground for political activism. Amid unprecedented reforms and the opening up of political freedoms in Burma today, it remains to be seen if the new contingent will repeat the political activism.
In the classroom, observers doubt that the university can relive its former glory straight away. Nationwide, the level of education is now regarded as among the lowest in the region. Many students now study their degrees by distance learning, and most learning is by rote. Wealthy Burmese, not least those ran the former military regime, often send their children abroad for school.
“A university degree [in Burma] is just taking a photograph and putting it on the wall. Graduates can do nothing,” said one student who graduated in Burmese from University of East Yangon.
“It’s a sham if universities just hand out degrees to unqualified students,” added Nai Ngwe Thein, a prominent ethnic Mon politician. “In my opinion, qualified teachers need to be recruited.”
Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has long campaigned for educational reform and for the reopening of Rangoon University. U Myint, economic adviser to President Thein Sein, last year sent an open letter to the president requesting its reopening to undergraduates.
Aung Lin, an alumnus of the Rangoon Institute of Technology, said the reopening of Rangoon University was only part of the broad reforms needed to bring higher education in Burma up to standard.
“Even when the university is reopened, it will take another 30 years to catch up with current educational developments,” he said.
“It cannot fully function like it did 20 years ago. There are no teachers now. No lab equipment.
“One generation has been missed. This is now only the first step to train the teachers-to-be to run the university, and to be those who reform education in Burma.”