The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Burma’s National Day
By YENI Friday, November 25, 2005

Every country has its “national day,” which usually designates the date on which a people achieved independence and became a nation, or which marks some other important threshold crossed in a nation’s history.
In France, National Day, or Bastille Day is celebrated on July 14, when a rag-tag crowd of starving peasants stormed the famous Paris prison and sparked the French Revolution. The Fourth of July in the US marks the date on which the American colonists formally declared independence from Britain, also initiating a war of revolution. Thailand celebrates its transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy on December 10, known as Constitution Day.
In Burma, National Day is celebrated on the 10th day following the full moon of the month of Tazaungmone—November 25 on this year’s Western calendar. It is a day steeped in political significance, which commemorates a boycott by Burmese university students to protest the British colonial administration’s Rangoon University Act of 1920.
Many Burmese regard the boycott as the country’s first step towards independence. The legislation would have limited access to higher education for all but the wealthiest families, but the student boycott ultimately led to revisions in the act.
Burma’s universities have produced many national heroes, the greatest of whom was Aung San, father of democratic icon and detained opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Student leaders were principally responsible for igniting the 1988 uprising. National Day in Burma has become a symbol of the unbreakable link between political and intellectual freedom, and the important role that students have played in the politics of Burma.
Universities all over the world have functioned historically as hotbeds of social and political activism, with young idealists—hoping to change the world—demanding change from their respective governments.
Things are different in modern Burma.
Instead of celebrating what prominent student leader Min Ko Naing calls the “student spirit”—a spirit dedicated to passionate idealism, justice and freedom—Burma’s ruling junta places itself at the center of the anniversary. By a show of force and appealing to the fears of its citizens, the ruling generals claim that national unity can only be preserved by the Tatmadaw, or armed forces. Further, the nation must be constantly aware of the “ongoing threat by neo-colonialists.”
Student activists have effectively been removed from the equation—and, like the historian of the country’s student unions, Aung Htun, constantly thrown in prison. The junta mouthpiece newspaper The New Light of Myanmar reports on this year’s National Day that the country’s educational system has shown “sustainable progress” since the days of imperial interference.
In fact, government spending on education has steadily declined since 1990. Official expenditures for civilian education in the fiscal year 2003-2004 stood at a mere 1.3 percent of the government’s budget. Sustainable, indeed.
A February 2004 report by the UN’s culture agency UNESCO claims that nearly half of the children who enter primary school will not reach grade five. Statistics suggest that some 84 percent of all Burmese children who drop out of primary school come from rural areas, where a lack of security and the distance of most schools from rural villages are the two chief contributing factors.
Schools operated by the country’s armed forces, however, are the best in the country, with modern facilities and, presumably, an unlimited budget. But don’t expect Burma’s next student uprising to proceed from the Defense Services Academy. Students in Burmese schools—military or otherwise—are generally denied the one crucial element in any country’s educational system: the ability to develop critical thinking skills.
The heady days of student activism have all but disappeared in Burma, save for the efforts of a diminished but ever eager minority that believes true democratic reform is still possible. For them, the band of students who opposed the colonial government in 1920 remains a powerful symbol of the future of Burma’s democratic opposition.
In a way, Burma’s authoritarian leaders believe much the same thing. “The national movement that took place in 1920 was not just a campaign to protest at the colonialists’ university act but a drive to escape from the downtrodden life under the colonialists,” says today’s New Light article on National Day.
Replace the second instance of the word “colonialists” with “generals,” and the country’s opposition leaders could not have expressed it any better.

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