Anger as students warned to stay away from politics
In what is being seen as a step backwards, the Myanmar government has warned university students that they could be expelled if they become involved in politics.
"If students under the Ministry of Science and Technology are involved in political activities, they [will be] subject to expulsion from their universities," declared a statement issued on 9 June by the ministry, which is responsible for public science and technology institutions.
Some 40 institutions come under its remit including five universities, 13 technical higher education institutions and 17 technical colleges. The statement came after a departmental meeting in the ministry on 28 May that issued the directive.
Although it does not clearly define political activities, the statement covers action against students who “commit the crimes of” political activities leading to unrest and “crimes against school discipline”.
It said: “Students can be expelled if they lead, incite, support or get involved in political unrest.”
Students noted that the statement made little distinction between leaders and followers in its wording, although it did say: “Those whose involvement in unrest is due to coercion will get a warning.”
The statement was first posted by Yamethin Technological University in the northern Mandalay region on 10 June. But it was clear from the wording that the statement encompasses all institutions under the Ministry of Science and Technology.
The directive has sparked outrage among students and former student activists.
Thein Tun, an engineering graduate, said it was unacceptable and intended to “discourage student involvement in politics”.
“As Myanmar is moving towards a more democratic system, they should not issue this kind of statement oppressing students,” said Naing Nge Lin, a representative of Pyithu Hluttaw – parliament’s lower house – and a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
“This is a violation of human rights. It controls students’ freedom,” said Soe Tun, who is in charge of education at Pwint Linn – the Peace and Open Society, a civil society organisation run by the country’s so-called ‘88 Generation’ of student activists.
Myanmar is currently going through a political transition to democratise and is implementing a new education policy based on democratic principles, he told University World News.
“This is also a time when the Ministry of Education is talking about reducing control. At this time this kind of statement is unacceptable. It ignores the views of the people, the scholars and the desires of students,” Soe Tun said.
Soe Tun is a member of the ‘88 Generation’ of students who led an uprising against the military junta in 1988. Students have played a leading role in political movements in the past.
“That’s why it’s not appropriate for the government to expel the students if they are involved in the activities of politics,” he said.
The move by the government is seen as a step backwards.
Students said the statement revealed that the government was still unduly worried about students, and was attempting to restrict the democratic role of student groups and unions in campaigning and lobbying for more freedom and autonomy for higher education.
Students noted that 1,000 students and their parents in a new intake at Rangoon University – which reopened in December 2013 after an extensive renovation project and after the buildings had been shut down for years – had been made to sign pledges to “avoid all matters that will disturb peaceful learning”.
This was interpreted by many as referring to political activities. Students of several other universities have said they signed similar pledges when they enrolled this year.
Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions who was imprisoned for more than four years after the 2007 ‘Saffron’ uprising and then barred from returning to complete her studies, told University World News that the directive was clearly intended to limit students from participating in student unions and campaigning NGOs.
“Under military government rules we saw the same kind of restriction on students and their parents not to join social and political movements. This is the same as the military regime.”
She added that the free organisation of student unions had been proposed in a draft higher education bill.
Student activities have been restricted until now and their independent unions deemed illegal, but student unions have been emerging in recent years and have been more active.
* Sithu Aung Myint contributed to this article from Yangon.
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