STUDENTS in the nightmare state of Burma have been kept out of class for more than four years - dating to the political uprising of 1988. Shutting down colleges and keeping politically-minded students out of class is a ritual in Burma.
Historically, Rangoon University (RU) has been the focal point of protest - first from British colonial rule and later from the illegitimate rule of General Ne Win who seized power in 1962. The dynamiting of the RU student center after the bloody July 7, 1962 massacre of students by the Burmese Army established the next three decades of brutal suppression of college students in Burma [also called Myanmar].
After crushing the student-led mass democracy movement and staging a military coup in September 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military regime of Gen. Saw Maung shut down colleges for more than three years. After killing, arresting, sentencing, and chasing thousands of dissidents to Thailand, SLORC reopened colleges in May, 1991. Professors, students, and parents were forced to sign notes promising not to protest; violators would be arrested.
Yet after the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize was given to the SLORC's main critic, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since July 1989, RU students protested. Soldiers arrested hundreds in December, 1991. Colleges shut down. The reason? Burmese chief of military intelligence, Gen. Khin Nyunt, cited "treacherous minions within the country and reactionary cohorts abroad." College professors were held responsible for failing to prevent the unrest, and had to attend security training classes.
THIS year began with reforms designed to avert international pressure and condemnation of SLORC human rights violations. After the removal of Gen. Saw Maung from SLORC as the head of state, the "new military junta" of Gen. Than Shwe permitted the family of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to visit her. It released some political leaders and prisoners, halted a military campaign against a rebel coalition and the exiled National Coalition Government of Burma, struck deals with Bangladesh to repatriate Muslim refugees,
and held a national "convention" to draw up a new (and very weak) SLORC constitution.
Burmese generals again reopened colleges last week. But several ugly features remain intact, including the so-called "emergency security program" in which security teams of professors are forced to monitor and thwart student demonstrations. This program required some 2,000 professors and staff to take courses at the Hpaung Gyi Civil Servants Training College to learn and undergo training for policing students. Professors have been forced to become intelligence agents for the SLORC.
Today, 2,000 to 3,000 Burmese dissident students are facing starvation at border camps - as well as arrest and deportation inside Thailand. These student refugees, who have been away from school for four years, have received little attention. Their struggle for democracy and "freedom from fear" under the relentless persecution of both Burmese and Thai military regimes contrasts with the insecurity of college students in central Burma who attend classes under duress, and surveillance.
These are trying times for students, the soul and future of Burma. In March 1988, the security forces of SLORC slaughtered hundreds of students at a bridge near the RU campus. A dissident student's poem "The White/Red Bridge," composed in a camp at the Thai border, speaks for that incident:
The White Bridge, now Blood has turned it Red,
The Red Bridge now flashed a message to the world
That Tyranny still exists
And deep within its blood-streaked steps can be heard
The Soul of a Nation weeping for its youth
This year, unless Burma changes, students will continue to be a target of repression by the Burmese military junta. The arbitrary opening and closing of colleges, and a decaying educational system, are shaping a sad political future for Burma.