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2-9 July: Still No Freedom for Burma’s Students

July 10, 2012

Over the weekend, Thein Sein’s government has shown to harbour the same paranoia regarding students that successive military regimes have held for the past fifty years as nearly two dozen student activists were arrested on Friday evening.

Saturday July 7 marked fifty years since the massacre of students by the Ne Win-led military regime and the subsequent bombing of the student union building at the University of Rangoon. To mark the event, a group of students planned to hold a ceremony at the long-empty building and lay a wreath at its door. Yet in a shameless act of fear, the authorities arrested around twenty student activists in a pre-emptive act, and detained them until after the event had been scheduled to take place. Students were not only arrested in Rangoon, but in Lashio, Mandalay, Shwebo, and Myingyan too. According to an 88 Generation Student spokesperson, the authorities claimed they just wanted to talk to the organizers of the event but this scarcely fools anyone.

When General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, students who protested were brutally fired upon. Following this the army blew up the student union building at University of Rangoon and it has not reopened since. After students led the protests of 1988, the University of Rangoon was closed and in the following years universities were relocated to outside the main urban centres of Burma, thus making it difficult for students to come together.

To this day the forming of a student union remains outlawed, thus demonstrating how the military backed government is still doing all it can to prevent freedom of association. Students have to sign a pledge upon entering university that they will not become involved in any political activities. Those who do become involved face arrest, as we have seen over the weekend. All Burma Federation of Students Union (ABFSU) (an outlawed student organization) member, D Nyein Linn, who spent Friday night in prison stated, “When you look to a democratic nation – the constitution allows freedom for formation of associations, but we feel like this law is unreachable to us. We don’t feel the law can provide us safety.”

Son Chhay, a Cambodian lawmaker who was visiting Burma at the time in his role as Vice-President of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucasus (AIPMC) echoed this sentiment, “If they are even going to arrest people before any crime has taken place, this shows that they continue to use fear and intimidation to repress.”

Thus, President Thein Sein has joined the ranks of Ne Win and Than Shwe by forcefully preventing students from gathering peacefully. We call on President Thein Sein to immediately remove student unions from the list of unlawful organizations, repeal the Unlawful Association Act along with other existing laws that restrict freedom of association, thus allowing student unions to be formed.

The President would also do well to adhere to the advice of his economic advisor, U Myint, who called for the reopening of the University of Rangoon and rebuilding of the student union building as this would constitute “an important landmark in national reconciliation and a memorable way to start a new chapter in our history.” It seems, however, that fifty years of barring the union of students is not long enough for the current government.

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Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo resigns, ostensibly for health reasons; former general and chief minister of Rangoon Region Myint Swe is nominated as his replacement

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Britain’s biggest companies, including British Petroleum and Shell, send representatives to Burma as part of the first government-sponsored trade delegation to the country in nearly two decades

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This post is in: Weekly Highlights