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Students in Revolt

Burmese Relief Center--Japan
DATE:June 7, 1995
Subject: Students in revolt

A Historical Perspective


"Colleagues!  Please carry on marching.  If the colonial police
horse kicks once, it shall set the country aflame."

The booming voice of a young student leader, Ko Ba Hein,
standing on the roof of Magwe prison during the "1300
Peoples Uprising" ignited the fire of student activism in the
pages of recent Burmese history.  At this important juncture in
the struggle for independence from the British in 1938,
students joined hand in hand with young Buddhist monks,
workers, farmers and the general public in the Burmah Oil
Company strike.  This type of alliance became the model for
mass movements whenever the country faced political and
economic crises.

Student activism in Burma initially began as a movement to
protect the rights of students.  In 1920, students spearheaded the
strike against the University Act which placed Rangoon
University under the University of Calcutta.  This strike not only
drew the support of all the people of Burma but also served to
heighten the patriotism of the Burmese, whose country had been
made a province of British India.

The protest against the University Act also led to the official
establishment of the Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU)
on January 3 1, 1931.  The Union stood for freedom of thought
and freedom of expression.  It became the ground that nurtured
both the spirit of nationalism and the modern Burmese literary

During 1935 and 1936, a second university boycott grew out of
protests against the British colonial education system.  As a
result, nationalist schools throughout Burma were established,
unearthing the teachings of Burmese culture, history and
literature long buried by the British, and giving birth to a modern
education system which enshrined Burmese culture.  It was
during this time that the national students union, the All Burma
Students Union (ABSU), was formed and Ko Aung San, who
was later to become the father of the independence movement,
was named as its first general-secretary.

The historic "third annual meeting" of the National Students
Union held in Bassein in 1938 paved the way for a new chapter
of student activism.  Ko Ba Hein and Ko Toe Yin of Mandalay
University Students Union put forth the idea that students should
be involved in politics, a proposal that was approved by the
majority.  From that time onward, students actively took part in
the struggle for independence against the colonial rulers.

In a demonstration in front of the Government Secretariat in
December 1938, a student, Ko Aung Gyaw, died as a result of
injuries sustained in a beating by colonial police.  During the
same period, military police fired into a crowd of monks and
students protesting in Mandalay, killing 17 people.  The deaths
of Ko Aung Gyaw and the " 1 7 Martyrs from Mandalay" were
recorded in history as the only incidents of bloodshed committed
by colonial rulers.  It served as a reminder for the Burmese
people of the incomparable brutality of their own army in the
suppression of subsequent student demonstrations.

The Rangoon University Students Union building became the
home for famous leaders of the independence movement such as
General Aung San, U Nu, U Ba Hein and U Ba Swe.  These
students later became the leaders of the Doh Bamar Asiayone
(Our Burma Association) which played a crucial role in the fight
for independence.  While the October Revolution in Russia and
the growth of socialism had an impact ideologically on the
student leaders, student activism in Burma was fundamentally
based on nationalism and patriotism.  The peacock, the national
symbol of Burma, was used in its fighting form for the flag of the
Students Union.  Throughout the modern history of Burma, the
fighting peacock has reflected the spirit of the Burmese students'
struggle against any ruler who suppressed the rights of students
and the rights of the people.
In 1939 Aung San and a group of his nationalist colleagues who
later became known as the "thirty comrades", surreptitiously left
Burma to undergo military training in Japan.  The Burma
Independence Army was formed with the help of the Japanese
and fought against the British together with japan's Imperial
Army.  However, under the reign of the Japanese during the
Second World War, Burmese patriots discovered the real motives
behind imperialist Japan's support, and staged a revolt against
them by forming the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League

Later in 1946, when workers protested the cost of living and
other "injustices" under the colonial system, the students joined
in, turning the campaign into a nationwide general strike. 
Following independence in 1948, student unions remained strong
and initiated several boycotts and strikes.  The most important
calls to action were made in 1949, 1953, 1956 and 1958,
primarily around changes in the education system.  The 1958
demonstration was a call for an end to the civil war.


Soon after the Burmese Army staged a military coup on March
2, 1962, the Revolutionary Council of General Ne Win enforced
strict regulations on the university student hostels and the
governing bodies of Rangoon University.  The University
Council, which had been composed of the rector, professors and
representatives of students was replaced by military officers.  The
University Senate and the Hostel Committee were also reformed
according to the wishes of the Revolutionary Council.

Expressing their dissatisfaction with the military's intervention in
the affairs of the University, the All Burma Students Federation
of Unions (ABSFU) staged a protest march on campus on July 7,
1962.  That evening, two truckloads of soldiers arrived and
opened fire on the students with automatic rifles.  At dawn the
following day the Students Union building was destroyed by
dynamite.  More than one hundred students were killed in that
incident.  In a radio broadcast the next morning, General Ne Win
referred to the student demonstration: "if it was done purposely
to oppose us, I have nothing more to say except that we will face
them sword against sword, and spear against spear, that is the
only solution."
General Ne Win seemed to think that suppression of student
dissent by force, the destruction of the historic Student Union
building and outlawing the organization of the Independent
Students Union would eliminate student activism in Burma.  In
fact, student activism continues to exist as an underground
movement.  Political study groups have proliferated throughout
the country and the spirit of the fighting peacock has been passed
on from one generation to the next.

Students of the present generation grew up reading the history of
student activism during the early stages of the struggle for
independence and later as part of the armed resistance against the
British and then the Japanese.  These historical events still
influence the strategic thinking of Burmese students in their fight
against the military dictatorship.  When the 1988 uprising was
crushed by the current regime, ABFSU's youthful leaders
developed a three-pronged strategy similar to that pioneered by
Aung San during the anticolonial resistance: students above
ground, an armed underground and party organization.

The 8-8-88 uprising was actually the climax of protracted student
struggle against the military dictatorship.  It would also move the
struggle beyond the borders of Burma and under the eyes of the
international community.  Most of the demonstrations during that
month of August took place in front of the US Embassy.  The
students and people of Burma hoped that the United States, as a
powerful democratic country, would extend support for the
restoration of democracy in Burma.

The brutal crackdown on democracy activists was followed by an
initial migration to the border camps by some 8,000 students. 
The population of students and supporters along Burma's border
with Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh swelled to
approximately 10,000 by early 1989.

In order to organize scattered students along isolated areas of the
2,000-mile-long border, the first student conference was held
from November 1-5, 1988, at the Karen National Union (KNU)
base of Kawmoora situated near the Thai-Burma border.  Out of
this conference the All Burma Students' Democratic Front
(ABSDF) was formed on November 5, 1988.  For the first time
since achieving independence, student activists from various
generations (1962-1988) united under the banner of the fighting
peacock.  Because it encompasses various generations of students
activists, ABSDF includes a wide range of ethnicity, social
classes and expertise from doctors, lawyers and teachers, to
workers and farmers.

The Constitution of the ABSDF was promulgated and the
Central Committee, the leading body of the movement, was
elected.  The Constitution outlined the following aims and

1) To liberate the entire people of Burma from the suppression of
military dictatorship;
2) To achieve democracy and human rights;
3) To restore internal peace;
4) To establish the Federal Union of Burma.

The ABSDF adopted the concept of national politics" as the
guiding principle of the student movement.  A policy statement
of the ABSDF clearly states: "At this moment in the history of
Burma, the primary conflict is that which exists between the
military regime on one side and the various ethnic groups
comprising citizens of Burma on the other.  People who are
struggling against the military dictatorship in order to topple its
suppressive nature constitute not a single stratum but a cross
section of all people regardless of social class, gender, ethnic
origin, religion, education, political ideology... in short, this fight
is for and by each and every citizen of the country.  The struggle
against the dictatorship is not the monopoly of any individual,
stratum of society or ethnic group.  Every Burmese citizen is in
this together, and therefore it becomes the duty and the
undeniable right of all those who love their country, cherish
human rights and wish to see progress to support and promote
this initiative."

The arrival of thousands of students to the areas controlled by
ethnic minorities was a pivotal point in the history of Burma. 
Various ethnic resistance organizations extended support for the
establishment of the ABSDF and the "Students' Army", the
armed wing of the democracy movement.  In the course of this
tough struggle, students can build greater understanding with non
Burman ethnic nationalities by expressing their spirit of
brotherhood, courage, commitment and sacrifices for the
common cause.  At the same time, the younger generation has
been made aware of the suffering of non-Burman ethnic
nationalities and the aims of the ethnic resistance movement. 
Students realize that national reconciliation based on the concept
of federalism is the key ingredient for the restoration of
democracy in Burma.  The ABSDF sees its role and responsi-
bility in the establishment of the Federal Union to: "(1) educate
the people on the necessity of a Federal Union and to organize
them around it and (2) strive for the construction of such a state
where all the nationalities of Burma can live in solidarity and
everlasting harmony."

During the seven year struggle since 1988, students have gained
experience and evolved into committed revolutionaries involved
in various aspects of the movement.  Some have become
"freedom fighters" who are resisting the military regime, joining
hand in hand with ethnic brothers.  Some have become political
organizers, building an internal network of underground activists
with an emphasis on human rights documentation and lobbying. 
Others became diplomats of the movement lobbying the support
of the international community, or journalists and artists working
to raise the public profile of Burma's struggle.  There are also
health workers, teachers and trainers who are serving people in
rural areas by establishing permanent schools, hospitals and
mobile medical teams.

In December 1994, the army of the current regime, the State Law
and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) launched a military
offensive against Manerplaw, the headquarters of the Karen
National Union (KNU), the National Coalition Government of
the Union of Burma (NCGUB) and other democratic opposition
groups.  Also attacked was Dawn Gwin, the ABSDF
headquarters.  SLORC encircled Manerplaw and the Dawn Gwin
area with over 10,000 armed forces and bombarded with heavy
artillery shells.  In February 1995, after the fall of Manerplaw,
the ABSDF leadership decided to abandon Dawn 
Gwin.  Women and children from the ABSDF were evacuated to
the Thai side of the border, however, the majority of the ABSDF
forces remained inside Burma as mobile units.  The fall of
Manerplaw and Dawn Gwin sets back the student movement to
a certain extent.  But it will not end or weaken the students'
struggle.  The morale of students is still high despite the past
seven years of battle and harsh jungle life.
Despite differences in opinion among the ABSDF leadership in
the past, the appropriate strategy for the movement has recently
been reviewed in light of the new situation.  The organization
will now concentrate more on mass mobilization and political
education.  Over the past seven years, ABSDF has organized
democratic leadership training courses with a focus on
democracy, human rights, federalism, sustainable development,
and the history of the resistance movement in Burma.  Teams of
the ABSDF that include political organizers, medics and teachers
will intensify their work on political education and development
in rural areas.  In this way, the work of village level
democratization will be the starting point for laying the
foundation of a future democratic Burma.

Although on the surface the military dictatorship appears strong,
one must remember that its foundation is weak, for it lacks an
essential ingredient: the support of the people of Burma.  The
people already expressed their discontent against the military
dictators in the 1988 democratic uprising and the general election
of May 1990.  If the people can be motivated to move from a
position of passive submission to a more active but non-violent
and low-risk non-cooperative stance, SLORC can be removed
from power.  In an atomized, alienated and fearful society such
as in Burma today, there is a need to build the confidence of the
people, reestablish the institutions of a civic society and reverse
the atomization process.  Since 1991, ABSDF has been
expanding political defiance base areas deep within the heartland
of Burma in coordination with other groups in the democratic
movement.  The main objective is to establish a communication
network and to disseminate the concepts of political defiance,
political organizing and trade unionism that will be followed by
a mobilization for action.

The ABSDF accepts that the role of international diplomatic and
economic pressure against the military regime also plays a
crucial part in the strategy of the democratic struggle.  It will
intensify its international campaign-challenging the legitimacy of
the SLORC, advocating corporate withdrawal from Burma and
focusing on the gross violations of human rights, rapid degrada-
tion of the environment and the corruption of the military regime.

The ABSDF believes that there must be a change from
dictatorship to democracy in Burma.  No tyranny can exist
forever.  It is just a matter of time.  It is the historical
responsibility of students who are pioneers of the democratic
movement to help equip the people with an appropriate strategy
and set an example of courage and sacrifice. 1995 is a critical
year for the Burmese student movement.  We must overcome the
challenges, obstacles and difficulties that are before us.  Student
activism in Burma will continue to be alive; however, as long as
there is injustice and oppression of the people-"Our heads are
bloody but unbowed."

(Dr.  Thaung Htun is a 1982 graduate of the Rangoon Institute
of Medicine I, who joined his colleagues in the liberated area of
Burma in October 1988.  He is currently a member of the Central
Executive Committee of the All Burma Students Democratic
Front (ABSDF) and serves as part of the Secretariat of the
National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma

1962 AND 1988
1962  July 7 demonstration
1963  Peace and cessation of war demonstration
1967  Akyab rice riots/ Sino-Burmese conflicts
1969  South East Asian Games demonstrations
1970  Moulmein University students' strike
1974  U Thant's funeral riots
1976  Uprising commemorating the centenary of Thakin Ko Daw
Hmaing (anniversary of the anti-colonial poet's birth)
1987  Demonstrations against demonetization without
compensation of the 25, 35 and 75 Kyat notes
1988  March uprising of students over the arbitrary killings of
students by police
1988  June uprising of the students, protesting brutal treatment
of students by authorities
1988 August 8 nation wide general strike known as the '8-8-88