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Student protests in Burma

Student protesters confront police officers preventing them from joining another group of students in a monastery in Letpadan, north of Yangon, Myanmar, March 2. 2015.

March 11, 2015

It was a relatively small student demonstration in a town 90 miles north of the former Burmese capital Yangon. But it was the continuation of a significant outburst of anger among the country’s young people which represents a potent challenge to the quasi-military government of former general Thein Sein. 

Some 44 percent of the 56 million Burmese are aged under 25 and they are increasingly impatient with the failure of promised change. Indeed since last November, they have been protesting a draft law that will centralize education, in particular taking much control of universities away from their governing bodies and placing it in the hands of the minister of education.

But the students are angry about more than this government interference in their education. The bill to which they are objecting largely ignores the use of the country’s many minority languages. By extension this is an attempt to undermine the position of the minorities themselves, not the least of whom are the savagely-repressed Rohingya Muslims. The government’s attempt to write the Rohingya out of Burmese history, even as these unfortunate people are herded into concentration camps, is a clear demonstration that far too little has changed since the military junta pretended to step down and marched their soldiers back into their barracks.

Last year’s census completely ignored the more than one million Rohingya. It made a mockery of the cohesiveness and unity that Thein Sein likes to talk about. It would be wrong of course to think that the angry students were protesting specifically about the Rohingya. But there can be no doubting that the appalling treatment of this minority by the police and army as well as by bigoted Buddhist thugs has added to the general despair among young people that virtually nothing has changed fundamentally in this country which has claimed, and been granted, readmission to the international community. 

This new student demonstration in Letpadan may have been a modest affair but it is the latest in a series of protests that will worry the government. Ordinary Burmese have also been disturbed by the attempt to prevent the Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from standing in this year’s presidential election on the grounds that her late husband was a foreigner. The iconic politician who has attracted widespread popular support certainly has some big battles to fight, but her limited protests over the treatment of the Rohingya have been regrettable. Put bluntly, a regime that can behave with such murderous violence toward a defenseless minority is not one that can be trusted. Aung San Suu Kyi should have gone front and center and told the international community that it should still not be doing business with Burma, business, moreover, which is enriching the generals and their cronies. 

And there is an irony here. The protests that followed the 1990 refusal of the junta to acknowledge the overwhelming victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy were spearheaded by Buddhist monks. Now part of that same religious establishment is at the head of an anti-Muslim, anti-Christian drive whose violent demonstrations are countenanced by the government. It is surely time for the majority of moderate Buddhists to join the students and renew their protests against military repression. And they should make one of their key demands the recognition and active support of Burma’s many minorities, not least the Rohingya Muslims.

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