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As Yangon University reopens, students turn to Orwell

Academic freedom takes small step forward in Myanmar

As Yangon University reopens, students turn to Orwell

Students graduate from Yangon University, Myanmar correspondent, Yangon

March 18, 2014

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In the center of Yangon University’s campus, an ancient tree stands some 50 meters high. Throughout the university’s long history, the falling of the leaves of this great tetrameles nudiflora has signaled to students that it’s time to revise for exams.

Pyay Thar Tun, a fresh faced 17-year-old, stands beneath the tree with fellow geology students. He handles a small rock, pointing out to his classmates its dark, ferrous flecks, and discussing the science behind the specimen.

Although it’s Saturday and there are no classes, groups of students buzz around the Kamayut township campus, displaying a commitment to their studies that would make professors around the world envious.

Only in December did Myanmar’s largest and oldest university allow undergraduates back onto campus.  First founded as an extension of the University of Calcutta in 1878, almost all of Myanmar’s popular protest movements have germinated here — first against British colonial rule, then against the military regimes that ruled the country for almost 60 years.

As a result, the institution was practically dismantled in the 1990s to stifle future dissent. Affiliate colleges around the city, with no student unions and no on-campus living, were set up to prevent the possibility that dangerous ideas would keep spreading among Myanmar’s brightest.

Now the red brick colonial-era halls of residence are filling up once again, with more than 500 undergraduates studying alongside the diploma and postgraduate students that were until recently the only ones allowed.

“The school is coming alive,” said Pyay Thar Tun. “More and more people come here to study, and even the teachers are happier. I think it makes them remember being young.”

The regime that took power in 1962 was acutely aware of the organizing powers of Myanmar’s student unions, particular here in Yangon. While the country’s independence hero General Aung San — father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi — stayed as a student in one of the halls here, agitating on campus against the British, it was also the site where thousands of students began to mobilise for the 1988 uprising.

It was 26 years ago last week that security forces opened fire on students at the nearby White Bridge, one of a number of key incidents that catalyzed the mass protests that eventually broke out in August that year.

Suu Kyi, in a statement to commemorate the anniversary of what become known as the Red Bridge incident — due its bloodiness — highlighted the “historic duty” to pass the mantle of resistance to the next generation.

Pyay Thar Tun says however that he has seen few signs that students could organize again in the same way they did in 1988. “I don’t expect that it will happen again. We are more interested in entertainment and things,” he said, adding that other students might be more politically minded, but were still unlikely to turn to protesting on campus.

Sai Khaing Myo Tun, a lecturer in international relations and political science, and the secretary of Myanmar’s University Teachers’ Association, said however that the mood in classrooms had changed.

“It’s more open. Before, we couldn’t talk frankly about politics or about the government’s ideas. And now we can talk about everything. You can criticize openly, if it’s relevant to the class.”

It is unclear yet if demonstrations would be permitted.  David Scott Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Myanmar, said that given the university’s history of dissent, “campus activism will be a lightning rod for the government’s tolerance of dissenting voices”.

As well as external forces pressuring the government to allow freedom of speech to flourish, the government itself must take the initiative, Mathieson added. “The government must ensure freedom of association, assembly and expression on every other university campus. The laws must be reformed in line with international standards to guarantee basic freedoms in what should be a bastion of free expression, the university campuses.”

But while there may be a buzz on the Yangon campus, outside its gates is a country still ruled by former military generals. Uncertainty remains over whether the current reformist leadership will allow itself to be swept aside by the popular opposition at elections in late 2015.

The reforming Myanmar government has opened some space, with exceptions, for protest in wider society, but the universities remain under the direct control of the Ministry of Education.

US President Barack Obama delivered a speech to students on thia very campus during a landmark visit in November 2012. But, as an indication of the tight grip that the rulers continue to hold over public discussion, a recent scheduled speech by British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire was called off by the government at the last minute.

There was no official reason given for the cancelation, but many speculated it was due to the potential sensitivity of his remarks, which — when they were delivered elsewhere — included calls for reform to Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution, and touched on the highly sensitive issue of violence between the majority Buddhists and Muslim communities that has wracked the country since June 2012.

University authorities are taking no chances with students. New undergraduates reported that they were asked to sign a pledge to behave themselves, including by not “organizing” on campus without permission.

All students taking full-time courses at the university must, alongside their majors, English and Myanmar, take a course entitled “Aspects of Myanmar.”  The small paperback textbook for the course outlines a whistle-stop history of the country, from kings to colonialists to civil war.

It even touches on 1988, albeit with a sanitized account of the events that outraged the world. “Because of a general dissatisfaction with the social and economic situation a movement of protest developed in August 1988 which soon deteriorated into disorder and anarchy,” the textbook’s single paragraph on the student-led uprising reads. “To prevent further deterioration of the situation, the armed forces took over responsibility of government on 18 September 1988.”

In the main library, there is even less mention of the role the university played in events 26 years ago.

A library assistant, who asked to remain anonymous, said he drew hope from the reams of students now studying at the library’s wooden desks. “This place used to be empty. Now we’re open on a Saturday,” he beamed.

The assistant alluded to a recent translation of George Orwell’s best known novel. It’s a sign of change — the Burmese-language version of the book would not have been permitted under the country’s paranoid censors, who saw any writing on dictatorship as a risky proposition. Yet there’s still some way to go to open up Myanmar’s own past to scrutiny.

“We have 1984…. Nothing on ’88,” the assistant said.

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