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Obama to speak at symbolic university in Myanmar (+video)

On Monday, President Obama will give a speech at the University of Yangon in Myanmar. The school, once one of Asia's finest universities, has become a symbol of the country's uprising and ruined education system.

By Erika KinetzAssociated Press / November 18, 2012

Student leaders of a successive uprising, (from left) Zaw Zaw Min, Hla Shwe, and Ragu Ne Myint walk outside the main gate of the University of Yangon, where President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech on Monday, in Yangon, Myanmar.

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP


Yangon, Myanmar

The soldiers began to shoot students at Rangoon University at 6:30 p.m. Hla Shwe watched, cowering in a nearby building, as his friends died. "I heard the shouting," he recalled. "They shot whoever they saw."

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It was July 7, 1962, the day rage at the military's recent coup boiled over and a date now seared into the memory of Hla Shwe, who is 75 years old.

"I got the idea that if they used the gun against students, why shouldn't we use guns to fight them?" he said.

When President Barack Obama speaks at Hla Shwe's alma mater Monday, he will be treading on ground heavy with political and historical significance.

Since colonial times, the fight for change in Myanmar has begun on this leafy campus. It was a center of the struggle for independence against Britain and served as a launching point for pro-democracy protests in 1962, 1974, 1988 and 1996. Myanmar's former military junta shut the dormitories in the 1990s fearing further unrest and forced most students to attend classes on satellite campuses on the outskirts of town.

Today, few students walk the broken pathways of what was once one of Asia's finest universities. Birdsong fills the halls of cracked buildings. For many, the school — which was renamed University of Yangon in 1989 — has today become a symbol of the country's ruined education system and a monument to a half century of misrule.

"Obama knows very well about the history of Yangon University, I think. This is an enemy place for the authorities," said Hla Shwe, who fought with Communist insurgents and spent 25 years as a political prisoner. "The American government is trying to show in a delicate way that they are not only working for the government but will also take care of the Burmese people."

A movement has been building within Myanmar to reclaim the university's history and restore it to its former glory. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly stressed the importance of upgrading the country's feeble school system and has been fighting in Parliament to repair the campus as part of sweeping educational reforms. U Myint, an adviser to Myanmar's reformist president, Thein Sein, in May wrote an open letter urging the government to fill the campus's empty classrooms with students, reopen the dormitories and reconstruct the Student Union building, which the junta blew up the day after Hla Shwe watched his friends get shot.

"For those who have reservations about our students and young people forming associations like other members of our society, the question we need to ask ourselves is: when we are striving so hard for reconciliation on many fronts, even with foreigners who have not been particularly kind to us, then why not also with our own young people?" wrote U Myint.

The government ramped up education spending in the last budget but critics say it hasn't moved boldly enough to catch up after years of neglect.

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