Student organizations in Myanmar have objected to new restrictions by higher education officials on public speaking on campuses, which they say have been put in place to prevent them from holding political lectures, discussions, and panels, in the latest government assault on freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
The order issued by Myanmar’s Department of Higher Education, which administers colleges and universities under the Ministry of Education, said students must get permission from rectors and academic presidents to hold events and must provide the titles of talks, the names and biographies of speakers, and the number of invitees and expected attendees.
The order was sent to all the country’s degree-granting higher-learning institutions on May 21.
In response, the Student Union of the Yangon Institute of Economics issued a statement on Wednesday objecting to the order, arguing that because university students will lead the country in the future, restrictions on their discussions on political affairs run counter to a democratic education.
“Before, we had to inform the rector if we intended to hold an event, but we now have to submit an application to him with the details,” Min Hein Khant, a member of the university’s student union, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The rector has to submit our application to the Higher Education Department, and the HED will decide whether it will allow us to hold the event or not,” he said. “It will require many steps and will take a long time for an event to be held.”
“If university students can’t hold any political activities under the democratic government, then we are worried about whether we are returning to a dictatorship under which we are not allowed to participate in any political activity,” he said.
Military juntas kept a tight rein on citizens and denied them various freedoms when they ruled Myanmar for 50 years until 2011 when the quasi-civilian government under former President Thein Sein came to power.
Student activists fiercely protested his government’s overhaul of the education system, arguing that the National Education Law, passed in 2014 and amended in 2015, curtailed academic freedom. The amended version ignored demands by student unions, such as free compulsory education, the right to take classes taught in ethnic minority languages, and a larger budget from the state for education spending. They also opposed a continued lack of autonomy reinforced by rules and regulations overseen by the Department of Higher Education.
Hundreds of students protested against the amendments for a month, and nearly 130 were jailed following a violent police crackdown on demonstrators in the central Myanmar town of Letpadan in March 2015.When Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016, she made their release one of the priorities of the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
Min Hein Khant also said that because students at the Institute of Economics are studying economics as it relates to politics, they must be prepared to make decisions about economic projects based on political situations.
“If we don’t know about politics, we can’t do any business,” he said. “If students can’t hold discussions on politics on campus, then we will have less knowledge from academics and outside contributors.”
The Representative Committee of University Teacher Associations also issued a statement on Wednesday, objecting to the order as a backward move in Myanmar’s democratic transition and one that will increase central control over students.
NLD a ‘military government’
Hla Shwe, a former student protest leader during the 1962 student demonstration against stricter campus regulations at what was then called Rangoon University, said the latest restrictions are ones that are usually made by military-run governments.
In July of that year, the military brutally suppressed a series of marches and rallies by students who also opposed the end of the system of university self-administration and the policies of the new military regime of General Ne Win.
“We have been suffering from these kinds of restrictions for generations,” Hla Shwe said. “We have a civilian government now. If the NLD government does exactly what past military governments have done, then we have to conclude that the NLD government is a military government.”
Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent leader of Myanmar’s 88 Generation Student democracy movement so named because of its role in the 1988 protests against the military regime, said every university student should have a fundamental understanding of politics.
“Everybody is involved with politics,” he told RFA. “Not every university student will become a politician, but every university student should have basic political knowledge.”
“It’s a pity that we don’t have this kind of freedom when we have our own civilian government,” he said. “When political leaders make policies about educational freedom, officials in the Education Ministry must release orders within these policies. That’s why it is important to make concrete education policies for higher education departments and university education.”
Yan Myo Thein, a former member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) noted that students have always been involved in Myanmar’s politics.
“Myanmar won independence because university students got involved in politics,” he said. “Students also led the 1988 uprising as well to change the country. If students didn’t get involved in politics, our country still might not be on the path to democracy.”
“The restrictions that university students can’t hold political events and can’t get involved in politics are not reasonable under a democratic system,” he said, adding that the new controls are a barrier to further change in Myanmar.
“It’s like the Ministry of Education is provoking students,” said Thiha Thwe, a former member of the Basic Education Students’ Union, which was popular during the 1988 democracy movement. “I thought it even wanted to cause unrest in the country. It makes people think that engaging in politics is a rebellion, just like the previous military governments had brainwashed people into believing.”
“It is not only a bad sign, but also a wrong lead for students when we are building a democratic country,” said Thiha Thwe, who is now a Yangon-based journalist for Japanese news agency NHK.
Antiwar protesters call for action
Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling NLD have also come under fire in recent months for restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly in the form of arrests and detentions of protestors and others who openly criticize the civilian administration or the still powerful military.
Antiwar activists on Wednesday urged Aung San Suu Kyi to take action against police who violently broke up a peaceful rally on May 12 in Yangon during which demonstrators called for an end to civil war in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state and for officials to rescue civilians trapped in conflict zones.
The protest devolved into fistfights between protest organizers and baton-wielding riot police, with civil society organizations and activists accusing police and others in plainclothes of violating demonstrators’ human rights by attacking them as they started to head home.
The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MHRC), an independent group consisting of 11 retired bureaucrats and academics, is investigating accusations against police and plainclothes individuals to determine whether human rights violations occurred.
During a press conference on Wednesday, the antiwar activists said they sent letters requesting that action be taken against police to 14 government officials and organizations, including President Win Myint, Aung San Suu Kyi, parliamentary speakers, Home Affairs Minister Kyaw Swe, and the MHRC.
“What we want is that government, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Myanmar Police Force take action against the people who committed these crimes against protesters,” said peace activist Myat Kyaw. “We want it, and we expect it.”
Authorities have charged 17 protesters under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for participating in the 300-strong protest at a traffic circle in the commercial capital. They each face a penalty of one month in prison or a 30,000-kyat (U.S. $22) fine.
The protesters’ first hearing was on May 25 in Bahan Township Court, and their next hearing is scheduled for June 8.
Reported by Thet Su Aung, Thinn Thiri, and Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.