Features
Christine Cheung/The Gauntlet

Student-led struggle for democracy

Burmese university students still strive for democracy among the bodies of their former classmates

Publication YearIssue Date 

Burmese university students have twice spear-headed movements to liberate their country from authoritarian rule in the past 70 years. A 1936 student strike at the Rangoon University Students' Union Building sparked an independence movement that led to autonomy from British rule in 1948. However, freedom was short-lived. Since the 1962 military coup, Burmese students have been leading a second liberation movement, this time against one of the most brutal authoritarian regimes the world has ever seen.
They have paid a high price for their heroism: thousands have been killed, unknown numbers of them sit in cells as political prisoners where, according to Amnesty International, torture is routine, and even more have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the military.

The current ruling military junta, which gave itself the Orwellian title of "State Peace and Development Council," seized power in 1962, displacing the newly-formed parliamentary democracy. The SPDC, then called the State Law and Order Restoration Council and led by General Ne Win, forcibly assumed power at a time of instability in the newly forming democracy.

What followed was a haunting mix of incompetence and terror. Burma has long been known as the "rice bowl of Asia," and its abundance of natural resources promised impressive economic growth for the future. However, SLORC mismanaged the economy to such a degree that, by 1987, Burma was declared the United Nations' Least Developed Country. Its economic indicators remain on par with countries like Chad and Ethiopia.

SLORC also failed to bring political stability to Burma. Instead, it exacerbated ethnic strife with its policies of cultural assimilation and absolute military control. The largest of the 67 minority groups (including the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Mon, Akha, Pulau, Arkan and Rohinga) have assembled to fight against the military. By the junta's own admission, they are currently fighting a dozen separate revolutions.

SLORC's human rights record is criticized as being among the worst in the world. There is no freedom of expression; criticism of the junta's policies is illegal, the media is entirely controlled by the state and communication with the outside world is forbidden. Unauthorized use of a fax machine or modem can result in a 15-year prison sentence. There are no legal means of political opposition to the dictatorial regime.

From the beginning of the military rule, Burmese students led the resistance to the regime. From the beginning, the military has responded with violent crackdowns.

"The students in Burma have played an enormous role, some say the most important role, in their country's struggle for democracy," said Corinne Baumgarten, spokesperson for Canadian Friends of Burma. "Many political prisoners are students, many of those killed in the non-violent protests were students."

On July 7, 1962, Burmese students staged a protest of Ne Win's just-formed military regime at the same Rangoon Students' Union building that birthed the colonial independence movement. General Ne Win immediately sent in troops to end the peaceful protest. Over 100 students were killed; many others were wounded or imprisoned. Ne Win had the Students' Union building blown up.

On Dec. 1, 1969, Burmese students organized a series of large demonstrations at the Southeast Asian Games in an attempt to draw international attention to the plight of the Burmese people. Again, the protests were crushed violently. Students known to have participated in the peaceful protests were expelled from university and the junta refused to allow Burma to host the games again.

In 1974, students and Buddhist monks staged demonstrations over the government's refusal to give appropriate honours after the death of U Thant, former Secretary General of the UN. These demonstrations developed into a series of popular protests against the one-party dictatorship, now known as the U Thant uprising. Martial law was declared and at least nine people were killed; approximately 1,800 students and activists were arrested.

Regular student-organized demonstrations continued throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. The protests intensified in the late '80s. In 1987, desperate to do something to revive the economy, SLORC attempted to implement a demonitization policy which would have seen 80 percent of the country's currency removed from circulation. Burmese students organized a demonitization boycott.

In 1988, resistance to the military came to a head, resulting in a series of dramatic protests and thousands of deaths. On March 13, riot police moved in on a peaceful protest leaving a student named Maung Phone Maw dead. In the days following, more student protesters were killed. On March 18, the protests ended when the military opened fire on a crowd of thousands of demonstrators.

With the economy in ruin and no freedom to do anything about it, the Burmese people continued to protest. On June 21, thousands staged a peaceful protest in the capital Rangoon. When the tear gas settled and the gunfire stopped, another 100 names were added to the death toll.
The 1988 insurgence of public resistance to military control finally climaxed in August. The denouement was bloody. On Aug. 8, students organized the largest demonstrations in Burmese history. Over 200,000 people in various city centres assembled for non-violent demonstrations. About midnight, troops descended upon the protesters and fired into the crowds. In the following days, demonstrations continued and so did the killing.

When the protesters were finally silenced, approximately 10,000 had been killed (four times the number in Tiananmen Square). The military moved quickly to shut down and barricade the universities. Over 8,000 students fled to the borders of the country; hundreds were arrested and imprisoned.

In the spring of 1990, two years after the massacre, SLORC announced and held democratic elections, to the surprise of both the Burmese people and the international community
"The military held elections to appease foreign investors thinking they held enough control over the media and expression and had terrorized the people enough that they would win," said Baumgarten.

However, the military-backed National Unity Party did not win; it was crushed at the polls, garnering only 10 of the 485 seats (less than five per cent of the popular vote). The National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide, capturing 392 seats and over 80 per cent of the popular vote.

Unwilling to concede defeat, the military declared the elections void and moved quickly to destroy the leadership of its opposition. NLD members were rounded up and killed, tortured, imprisoned or chased away. Aung San Suu Kyi, who went on to win the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, lost her freedom and was made a prisoner in her own house for six years.

The military was roundly condemned by the international community--including the UN Human Rights Commission, the U.S. State Department and Congress, the European Parliament, the International Labour Organization, Amnesty International, 10 Nobel Peace Laureates and numerous national governments.

"I don't call it the Burmese government; I call it a military dictatorship," said Baumgarten. "It is an illegitimate body with one of the worst human rights records of any dictatorship in the world--a record which has only worsened since 1990."

The only noticeable political changes after the election were semantic: the military rulers changed their party name from SLORC to the State Peace and Development Council and they changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. However, most Burmese people and international opponents of the current regime refuse to use the name "Myanmar" as a symbolic protest against the legitimacy of the body that gave it.

After the election, the SPDC sought not only to eliminate the NLD leadership but also to attack its opposition at the root by crushing the primary organizers of the Burmese democracy movement--university students. They shut down the nation's universities completely for seven of the past 10 years. In fact, the SPDC has effectively dismantled the entire Burmese education system to maintain power.

At the primary and secondary level, public schools are significantly underfunded while at the same time the state has outlawed private schooling. Teachers are not paid enough to support themselves without charging fees or taking other jobs. Books and resource materials are hopelessly inadequate and outdated. UN statistics indicate that over 30 per cent of school-age children do not attend, and the illiteracy rate is approaching 20 per cent.

The state of affairs is worse at the university level. During the brief span the universities were open at all, they were academic disaster zones. Campuses which were traditionally politically active were depopulated and heavily monitored. Year-long programs were raced through in as little as three months to prevent student organization. Books and research equipment were almost non-existent; exam procedures were corrupt. And, perhaps most importantly, there was absolutely no academic freedom; everything was monitored and controlled by the military, even the international conferences.

This summer the universities re-opened, but in a very limited way.

"They opened them in July, but really it's an unfinished job," said Baumgarten. "Historically, active campuses have limited enrolment. There are a few students in the schools, they are highly monitored and the schooling is very substandard."

However, Burmese students' determination has proved unremitting. They are again fighting the SPDC over access to and the quality of their education. Their strategy is different this time; they've brought their protest to the international stage. The All-Burma Students' Democracy Front has teamed up with various international human rights groups to launch the "Open Our Schools" campaign.

"The purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness of the terrible state of education in Burma and the disastrous effects this can have on the future of the country," said Baumgarten. "Students all over the world can show their solidarity with the Burmese students."

Much economic and social damage has already been done by the SPDC's education policies. The Burmese workforce is unable to participate in the high-tech industries that dominate the world economy; instead, the Burmese economy consists mostly of resource extraction by foreign companies. Also, since the collapse of its legitimate economy, Burma has become one of the world's largest heroin exporters.

The plight of Burmese people and their democratic struggle went largely unnoticed--some say ignored--by the rest of the world before 1988. After the military ignored the results of the election in 1990, many nations imposed sanctions on Burma and supported resolutions in the UN condemning the regime. However, the political pressure has thus far not had any noticeable affect; military control is as tight today as ever before and human rights abuses have only worsened.
In the past few years, many nations have imposed economic sanctions on Burma, arguing that revenues from foreign investment are the only thing keeping the military in power as it has no popular support with the Burmese people. Some companies ceased economic operations in Burma, including the textile giant Levi Strauss, which issued the following statement upon pulling out:

"It is not possible to do business in [Burma] without directly supporting the military government and its pervasive violations of human rights."

Canada took a progressively tougher stance toward the military regime in Burma over the past decade. For most of the 1990s, Canadian Foreign Policy regarding Burma involved severing diplomatic ties, but maintaining economic ties as a means of constructive engagement. Constructive engagement is the name for a strategy employed by the Canadian government by which it hopes to positively influence countries with poor human rights records or those lacking democracy by engaging in economic trade.

However, this policy was condemned as counterproductive in Burma by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. No positive change occurred in human rights or restoration of democracy in a decade of increasing trade.

"We were very pleased when, in 1997, Canada abandoned its constructive engagement policy in Burma and imposed selective economic measures," said Baumgarten. "However, it remains mostly a symbolic gesture to discourage Canadian companies from investing; it has no real teeth. Many Canadian corporations continue to operate in Burma. In fact, imports from Burma have increased by over 50 per cent since 1997; investment in Burma has also increased."

Among the Canadian companies that continue to do business in Burma are a number of Calgary resource companies, including Leeward Capital Corp., TransCanada Pipelines Ltd., Ridel Resources Ltd., First Dynasty Mines and Ivanhoe Mines.

"The largest foreign mining investor in Burma is a Canadian company," said Baumgarten. "Walmart Canada was importing from a Burmese company owned in part directly by the military."

Most analysts are skeptical about Burma's universities staying open very long. So are Burmese students. Many of those chased out of their classrooms have taken up arms against the dictatorship. Others continue to organize in the cities. However, the military remains heavily armed and continues to prove itself willing to use those arms to maintain power.

Section: 

Issue: