On This Day

The Day Students Barricaded Myanmar’s Secretariat to Oppose Colonial Rule

By Wei Yan Aung 20 December 2019

Yangon – On this day 81 years ago, thousands of students blockaded the Secretariat in a protest against colonial rule, in which Ko Aung Kyaw, a young student, suffered a blow to the head by a baton-wielding mounted policeman and later died. More than 200 students were injured in the crackdown.

In Chauk, Magwe Region, oil workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions, which developed into a national uprising in late 1938. Oil workers, farmers and activists marched from Mandalay to Yangon to set up a strike camp at the Shwedagon Pagoda and joined Rangoon University students who were staging their third annual protest against colonial rule.

On Dec. 20 in Yangon, more than 7,000 students blockaded the Secretariat, the seat of British colonial rule, and demanded that the authorities release students who were detained in earlier protests and meet the demands of the striking oil workers.

Police crack down on student demonstrators on Spark Road on Dec. 20, 1938. / YHT

The blockade was broken up by mounted police. Ko Aung Kyaw, 22, died two days later. The student who kept the students’ union flag flying amid the crackdown was Ko Kyi Maung, who later became chairman of the National League for Democracy.

The mass protest saw the downfall of Dr. Ba Maw’s government, and the colonial authorities and Burmah Oil Company (BOC) fulfilled the demands of oil workers. The movement was seen as promoting political awareness and fostering unity against British rule.

Ko Aung Kyaw was posthumously conferred the title Bo (leader), and Sparks Street in downtown Yangon was changed to Bo Aung Kyaw Street in 1956, eight years after independence. A blue plaque was installed on Bo Aung Kyaw Street in 2008, officially recognizing his sacrifice.