Students in Burma have historically played a leading role in politics. Since Burma was colonized
by the British in 1885, not many could imagine independence until the Student Union got
involved in politics in 1936.
Under the leadership of a student named Aung San (Aung San Suu
Kyi’s father), Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948.
When General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962 for what the General reasoned was to save the
country from national disintegration, the students revolted. The students held large-scale non-violent demonstrations in protest of the coup and demanded the restoration of a democratic
The military brutally crushed the uprising, killing at least 200 students and blowing up
the historic Student Union building, which had been a refuge for many Burmese nationalists
during the independence struggle.
Over the years there were recurrent uprisings such as in 1974, but the biggest uprising by far
was in 1988, when a confrontation erupted between riot policy and students.
Ko Phone Maw, a
student from Rangoon Institute of Technology, was killed by the military in a dispute with
The students began the protests by demanding that those responsible for using
excessive force against Ko Phone Maw were brought to justice. But when the military turned a
blind eye to their demands, the students organized a larger rally on the campus of Rangoon
University on March 16, 1988. The military responded by killing more peaceful demonstrators.
This massacre motivated the students to lead a movement to overthrow the dictatorship.
Secretly the students organized a nation-wide demonstration against totalitarianism on August 8,
1988. Leading up to this date, hundreds of students were killed and thousands of students were
killed for rallying and preaching about democracy. Soon, millions of people throughout the
country from all different sectors joined the student-led democracy movement.
When the politicians who supported democracy were about to form an interim government, the
military staged a bloody coup on September 18, 1988, killing thousands of unarmed protesters.
The Chair of the Student Union, Min Ko Naing, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and has
been held under solitary confinement to this day.
When the military held an election in 1990, the
students campaigned for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the strongest opposition
party, led by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. With the student’s help,
the NLD Party won 82% of the seats in the house of representatives. However, the military
effectively nullified the results of the 1990 election and arrested its opponents including
Members of Parliament. At present there are 3000 political prisoners in Burma’s notorious
prisons. Of those prisoners, one third are students. In 1996, students held another series of
protests that were swiftly crushed by the military regime.
Not only are Burmese students still struggling for democracy inside Burma, but a significant
number of students are struggling from outside the country, predominantly in Thailand. After the
military took power again in 1988, thousands of students joined the underground movement
inside Burma while thousands of students left to the Thai-Burma border to form a student army
called All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF). Most students support the non-violent
principles of the NLD.
Open School Campaign
There is a long tradition of student activism in North American universities. In the United States,
students have been working hard to pass resolutions to ensure that their universities and student
governments are acting ethically and are not doing business with corporations that are not
respectful of human rights. And they have been successful. In Canada, Queen’s University
divested their South African holdings during the apartheid era and other universities, including
McGill and the University of Toronto, established investment social responsibility committees to
review investment policies. More recently, a boycott of Pepsi across college campuses resulted in
Pepsi withdrawing from Burma. Students at the University of Toronto have been working to get a
“No Sweatshop Labour” resolution passed, to ensure that University clothing has not been
produced in sweatshops. At the University of Guelph, a student resolution for not buying from
companies doing business with Burma will hopefully be passed in the fall of 1999. The Guelph
Public Interest Research Group that has been working on the resolution is hopeful that the Board
of Governors will pass a similar resolution in the Spring of 2000.
Students in Canada can play a very important role in supporting Burma’s pro-democracy
movement in solidarity with their Burmese counterparts. Call on your student government to
implement resolutions in support of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi and calling on the SPDC to
open the universities in Burma. Better yet, make the resolution a selective purchasing policy by
including a call to the school to stop doing business with companies that are doing business in