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BP: BURMA: The ruling military ju

Bangkok Post May 24, 1998 


              They'll never learn

              BURMA: The ruling military junta is
              punishing student democracy activists
              by denying them an education. 

              MOE AYE 

              One may find it hard to believe that there is a country where a
              student is imprisoned for 15 years for writing the history of a
              student movement while murderers, rapists and drug traffickers
              are handed sentences as light as one to seven years. But such a
              country does exist. It's called Burma - a nation of despots run by
              the military, where human rights violations are at a record high.

              Ko Aung Htun, a former Rangoon Institute of Technology
              student and Central Executive Committee member of the
              All-Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), was
              arrested in January and sentenced to 15 years for compiling The
              History of the Burmese Students Movement, his second time
              in prison under the junta. His act was described as "terrorism" by
              the junta. The first time he was taken into custody was in
              November 1990; he was jailed for five years for his involvement
              in the ABFSU. In October 1991, he was transferred from Insein
              to Tharayawadi prison. He was kept in solitary confinement for a
              long period of time and as a result he now suffers from asthma.
              He was released in 1994.

              There are many other students like Ko Aung Htun who have
              been sent to prison more than once. One of them is Min Ko
              Naing, the chairman of the ABFSU. Min Ko Naing has been in
              solitary confinement for more than nine years. He now suffers
              from tuberculosis and asthma due to the conditions of his

              Just after the State Peace and Development Council, the former
              State Law and Order Restoration Council, claimed it would
              re-open all universities, colleges and educational institutes it
              conducted a major crackdown on student activists. In a press
              conference on March 1, the junta accused activists of
              involvement in terrorist activities and membership in underground
              communist cells.

              In reality, some of them were arrested because they assisted Ko
              Aung Htun with the book. They were given prison terms of
              seven to 10 years.

              They are Ko Khun Sai, a former Medical student, prominent
              student leader at U Thant's funeral riot in 1974 and a former
              political prisoner from 1989 to 1993; Soe Lwin, who served on
              the Central Executive Committee of the All-Burma Basic
              Educational Students Union and a political prisoner from 1990 to
              1993; Dr Maung Maung Kyaw, a lawyer and former political
              prisoner from 1989 to 1992; U Thant Ban, a lawyer and former
              political prisoner from 1991 to 1995; Ms Su Su Win; and Ms
              Khin Moe Aye.

              Others were arrested because they tried to pass documents to
              then UN special envoy (now general secretary) Kofi Annan.

              Why, for the junta, is compiling a book an act of terrorism? Are
              those who love freedom of expression and hate dictatorships

              At the press conference, Col Kyaw Thein said that Ko Aung
              Htun is a communist because he has been friendly with former
              communists. But isn't the SPDC the closest friend of communist
              China in Southeast Asia? In fact, the book documents the
              student movement of July 7, 1962.

              The accounts contained in the book of U Thant's funeral riot and
              photographs of the 1988 uprising with file photos are shameful to
              the Burmese military rulers. Ko Aung Htun met the people who
              participated in the movements and asked them what really

              If U Ne Win and the former generals would consent to
              questioning, Ko Aung Htun would gladly ask them who really
              ordered the destruction of the Students Union Building on July 7,
              1962. He would also ask them why they did not pay respect to
              U Thant, the former UN secretary general, when his body was
              flown back from New York, and accord him the state funeral he
              rightly deserved. Was U Thant a communist, too?

              The authorities continue to oppress students both inside and
              outside the prison. The MIS (Military Intelligent Service) is
              re-interrogating the students in prison, especially those who are
              close to completing their terms. Here are some of the questions
              the MIS officers are asking:

              1. What will you do after you are released from prison?

              2. Will you continue to be involved in politics?

              3. Will you try to meet with Daw Su [Aung San Suu Kyi] after
              your release?

              4. Do you think Daw Su could solve the country's problems?

              5. What do you think of the name change, from Slorc to SPDC?
              These interrogations have angered and worried the parents of
              these students. They fear their sons and daughters, whose
              prisons terms are nearly up, may be kept in jail even longer
              should they fail to answer the questionnaire "correctly", just as U
              Win Tin was for "violating prison rules".

              In November 1995, U Win Tin of the National League for
              Democracy, Ko Myo Myint Nyein (former head of information
              for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi), and other political prisoners were
              accused of violating prison rules. Although they denied the
              accusations, all were sentenced to seven years in jail in March
              1996. At that time, Ko Myo Myint Nyein and the others were
              just three weeks away from gaining their freedom.

              Sometimes the MIS re-interrogates prominent activists in prison,
              explaining that the junta leaders want to know their opinions.
              But, in reality, it is a test to find out whether they still hold strong
              political beliefs.

              In September 1994, while interrogating a student who led the
              December 1991 demonstration at Rangoon University, the
              authorities told him that he would be held in prison as long as the
              junta remains in power. His crime: criticising U Ne Win and the
              SPDC, and demanding the creation of a student union to protect
              students' rights.

              Students and political prisoners are regularly transferred to
              prisons far from home to make it difficult for their friends and
              loved ones to visit them. Requests by families to have them serve
              their terms closer to home have been turned down by the
              authorities who explain that "it is not our fault that they got
              involved in politics."

              At the same time, the township MIS go through the lists of
              students who will be returning to classes if and when the
              universities are re-opened. They want to know if they are related
              to former political prisoners or to those students presently in
              prison or in exile. In addition the township SPDC are seeking
              guarantees from parents that their children will refrain from
              joining any political movement.

              The penalty is harsh for those who once delved into politics.
              Former student political prisoners, university students, and even
              high- and middle-school pupils have been barred from continuing
              their education.

              In January 1990, three 15-year-old high school students from a
              satellite town were arrested and sentenced to three years
              imprisonment for their involvement in the Student Union. Their
              parents appealed to the military tribunal to release them because
              of their age. As usual, the appeal was rejected. Three years later
              when they got out of jail they were banned for life from
              continuing their education.

              Now these young men, 23 years old, have only an 8th standard
              education. Does their learning have to stop there? They were not
              criminals or terrorists, so why a punishment so harsh? Some of
              them were only a year away from obtaining a degree before they
              were arrested for their political beliefs. There are many like them
              in Burma today. So what good is it when universities are
              re-opened but so many are barred from going back to study?

              It is never too late to learn, the saying goes. Unfortunately, as
              long as democracy eludes this country, for Burma's students the
              wait will continue. u Moe Aye is a former political prisoner
              working with the All-Burma Students' Democratic Front.


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Last Modified: Sun, May 24, 1998