Student activism resurfaces
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Student activism resurfaces

By The Irrawaddy JANUARY, 1997 - VOLUME 5 NO.1


It has been five years since a large-scale demonstration was held in Burma, but the demonstrators have used the intervening time to organize and shape their convictions.

The December protests were marked by a high degree of discipline and organization. Underground student activists collaborated to stage the protests in Rangoon.

The timing of the protests coincided with an intensive foreign media presence, with media representatives in Rangoon for Slorc’s monthly press conference. The media presence served both to publicize the demonstrators’ activities and keep Slorc power in check.

World leaders are also currently scrutinizing the latest developments on Burma’s human rights record. Burma’s tarnished image has caused considerable contention for foreign investors and its candidacy for Asean membership.

The unrest was sparked in October by a dispute between students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology and a restaurant owner.

The junta, refusing to acknowledge that their own policies might contribute to the unrest, blamed the NLD for fomenting rebellion. The students were actually incensed about brochures distributed on campus telling students to stay out of politics. Slorc, however, seized the protests as an excuse to surround Suu Kyi’s compound with riot police, resealing the road to the opposition leader’s house.

When protests reerupted in December the demonstrators and the NLD carefully denied any links, although Suu Kyi was sympathetic with the concerns of the students.

University students, along with high school students, framed their demonstrations around demands for the re-establishment of student unions, civil liberties, and an end to police brutality.

The public aim of the demonstration was a depoliticised call to secure student rights, but as the protests continued this goal was overshadowed by the broader desire to raise political demands for democracy.

One witness remarked: "They sang songs — many are 1988 songs — as well as the national anthem and chanted ‘our cause, our cause’. They also hoisted the student union flag, "the fighting peacock."

On December 2 an estimated 2,000 students from RIT and Rangoon University participated in a 20-hour peaceful protest. The students made lengthy speeches, bravely eschewing masks.

As the spirit of protest swept Rangoon’s schools, the junta reacted by closing down all universities, high schools, and secondary schools in Rangoon and Mandalay. The closures were unofficial - students were met by their teachers and professors and told to go home, while soldiers patrolled their campuses.

Medical students from the Institute of Medicine were the last group to stage peaceful sit-in rallies, before Slorc effectively tightened its stranglehold security.

The heavy military security only lessened after students were sent back to their homes in the countryside. Students report that they have been interrogated by police and military in the country. Interrogees who discuss their arrest and questioning violate the Government Secrets Act.

The demonstrators enjoyed widespread popular support. On December 11 troops broke up 2-3,000 students demonstrating at the Mandalay Institute of Technology. In Mandalay visiting regional military commanders, who were seeking blessings from a respected elder monk, were forced to turn back after members of a young Buddhist monks’ union hurled stones at their cars. Unions are illegal in Burma.

Tight security was installed around the satellite towns which have mushroomed around Rangoon to accommodate displaced people, and are thus considered potential hotbeds of civil dissent.

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