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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 system. 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 authorities. 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 Burma.
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