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Rare Student Protest in Myanmar

Students Stage Rare, Risky Protest in Myanmar’s Capital
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Students Stage Rare, Risky Protest in Myanmar’s Capital

Students held a second day of demonstrations at Yangon University Saturday. The rare, illegal protest is a response to legislation that centralizes control of universities and, according to civics groups, curtails efforts to bring about autonomy for Myanmar’s institutions of higher learning.

The students marched to the locked gates of Yangon University and climbed over to let themselves in when officials did not open them. The protestors pledged their willingness to be arrested at the modest but historic display of defiance against authority in a country still making the transition from an autocratic military government toward democracy.

For the first time in 26 years, activists gathered on the prohibited spot of Yangon University’s student union, which the first military junta dynamited in 1962. The students bowed their heads in memory of earlier generations of protesters, killed by the British colonial forces and the Myanmar military regime.

Now a new generation of students is on the march, seemingly unafraid of a showdown with police.

“My parents actually worry for me and for my friends,” said Su Yadanar Myint, a Dagon University student. “But my father supports me to participate in this strike.”

Myanmar once had a reputation for the best educational standards in Southeast Asia. But that severely deteriorated under decades of authoritarian rule. The student protestors would like to see standards restored to the high levels enjoyed by their great-grandparents’ generation.

“Now Burma’s education system is the lowest (among countries) in Asia, even in Southeast Asia,” said Phyo Phyo Aung, a protest leader. “So we need to get a democratic education. We want autonomous universities. We want freedom of education.”

This is the same campus where on Friday President Barack Obama met with Southeast Asia student leaders. That could be why, so far, police have hesitated to break up the protests.

The students left the campus peacefully, but leaders vow to intensify their protest movement if their demands for educational reform are not met. That could lead to a confrontation, reminiscent of the violent clashes with authorities of past decades.