Students Ignore Myanmar Junta’s Order to Return to Campus Amid Turmoil

The military regime is seen as trying to project normalcy, but most students and teachers oppose the junta.
2021-05-07
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Students Ignore Myanmar Junta’s Order to Return to Campus Amid Turmoil Young protesters display the Myanmar Student Union flag at a demonstration against the military junta during the Myanmar New Year festival of Thingyan in Mandalay, April 13, 2021.
AFP/Anonymous source

Most students across Myanmar have ignored the ruling military junta’s order to reopen colleges, universities, and government-run technical schools, with only a small percentage showing up on campuses after the reopenings, students said Friday.

One student union official leader estimated that only 10 percent of students at Yangon University in Myanmar’s commercial capital attended classes, while security concerns have been raised over a bombing near another university in Yangon on Wednesday.

“We saw a small number of students attending,” said Min Han Htet, a spokesman for the Yangon University Students’ Union. “Final year classes reopened. We saw about four or five students in a classroom. It’s hard to give a percentage, but maybe 10 percent of the total was there.”

There are 32 degree colleges with around 100,000 students in the Yangon region. Nearly all the students have decided to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) of striking professionals who demonstrate in tandem with anti-junta street protesters.

Some parents are pressuring senior-year students to return to the classroom so they can complete their degree requirements, said a member of the Dagon University Students' Union in Yangon.

“Especially those in master’s courses and honors classes [are attending],” the person said. “Parents are pressuring the students because they are in their final year.”

Students at many universities and colleges around the country have issued statements declaring that they will not return to school.

Police and soldiers patrolled campuses as some of the students returned.

The Dagon University Students’ Union said a small explosion shook a public bus in front of a Buddhist monastery near the university, though no other details were available.

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A young Myanmar protester displays the Yangon University Students' Union flag during a demonstration against the military junta in Yangon, April 12, 2021. Credit: AFP/Anonymous source

Junta changes semester length

Under Myanmar’s higher education system, each of two annual semesters usually lasts about four months or nearly 100 days, but under the junta, only 39 days are required. Military rulers also have changed the days of instruction per week from five to six.

Thant Thet Oo, a first-year master’s student in English at Yadanabon University in Mandalay, said he is not going to enroll in classes under the State Administration Council, the formal name of the military government.

“I’m not going to attend these classes,” he said, saying that he does not accept the military coup on Feb. 1 that deposed country leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected civilian-led government.

Security forces have arrested hundreds of students since the coup took place, including student union leaders and high school students, charging some of them with incitement under Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code for taking part in anti-junta protests across the country. Some have been released while a few others have gone missing during crackdowns on demonstrations.

“Students have been arrested, imprisoned, and unjustly shot during the protests,” Thant Thet Oo said. “Out of respect for those killed and tortured, we won’t go to school until the uprising is over.”

But he also said he could not accept the changes the junta has made to the length of school sessions.

“Studying just 40 days and passing two levels a year is not acceptable,” said Thant Thet Oo, adding that 83 percent of the 60 fellow students in his class said in a poll that they would not enroll in courses.

A poll conducted by the student Union at the Monywa University of Economics in the Sagaing region showed that 90 percent 4,000l conducted by the Monywa University of Economics Students' Union, 90 percent of the students have decided not to attend, said Khant Wai Phyo, a member of the university's temporary governing council.

An English teacher at Mandalay University, who declined to give his name, said professors would not be able to provide full instruction under the new system.

“In no country is it possible to teach a four-month course in a single month,” he said.

Military leaders are “doing what they want to do as in authoritarian countries,” he said. “They only care about holding onto power but nothing else. Can the students going get a real education like this?”

The junta also had ordered all employees of the Department of Higher Education under the Ministry of Education to stop participating in the CDM and return to their workplace by May 3.

About 80 percent of the teaching staff of all universities in Mandalay will continue to take part in the CDM, said the English teacher at Mandalay University.

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Myanmar teachers and students take part in an anti-junta protest in Hpakant, northern Myanmar's Kachin state, May 5, 2021. Credit: AFP/Kachinwaves

‘Stained with our students’ blood’

A teacher in Yangon, who declined to give her name, said she would not walk through blood-stained roads to teach her students out of respect for those killed by security forces.

“We feel so sad for all the people suffering under the junta,” she said. “We feel even more sadness for our students who were killed. We don’t want to walk on the roads stained with our students’ blood.”

Thein Win, director-general of Myanmar’s Department of Higher Education, who is responsible for the functioning of the country’s colleges and universities, signed a declaration issued by the junta on April 17, pledging to warmly welcome back striking employees who returned to work and signed a pledge of loyalty.

There were more than 609,000 students and about 37,150 teachers at Myanmar’s highly centralized and state-run colleges and universities during the 2017-2018 academic year, according to the Department of Higher Education, the latest period for which information was available.

In an interview earlier this week with RFA, outspoken democracy activist Min Ko Naing said the military regime reopened schools to show an outward appearance of normalcy to the world.

“Do they really mean to give education to young people or do they intend to trick the world with a scheme showing photos of people going back to their normal routines?:” asked Min Ko Naing, a member of the Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a group of lawmakers from deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

He went on to say that schools could become “hot spots” for new waves of protests against the junta.

“I can imagine the birth of school-based boycotts and the rise of peacock flags on the school walls,” he said, referring to a traditional symbol of resistance in Myanmar.

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Myanmar teachers and students take part in a motorcade protest against the military junta in Launglon township, Dawei district, of southeastern Myanmar's Tanintharyi region, March 31, 2021. Credit: AFP/Dawei Watch

'Role of student unions is critical'

The juntas that ruled the country in earlier decades shut down universities, which have been at the heart of Myanmar democracy movements, amid popular protests against their rule.

In 1991, the ruling military junta shut down universities in the then capital Yangon and sent army troops into the streets to break up demonstrations and arrest protesting students demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who as opposition leader was under house arrest. Thousands of military reinforcements were sent into the city over two days with most of them deploying around the university area.

During a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, Myanmar forces conducted a bloody crackdown on student protesters during nationwide pro-democracy demonstration protests and civil unrest that peaked in August.

The military’s response to the protests, which had started as a student movement in Yangon over discontent with the country’s educational system and economic development, left hundreds of people dead and ended more than a month later following a violent military coup by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the successive junta.

“We have seen that the role of student unions is critical,” said Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 1988 Generation Students Group that spearheaded the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that ended in a bloody military crackdown that left hundreds dead.

“These students have capacity and creativity,” he said about current students in Myanmar.

“I know they will make the best use of this opportunity of the authorities restarting the new school year to achieve the revolution,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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