A student protestor demonstrates in Myanmar’s Magwe Region (Aung Naing Soe).
Amid a wave of student protests reminiscent of 1988’s abortive democratic revolution, security forces are wary of provoking broader unrest
If there’s one thing that Myanmar’s military potentates have been exceptionally good at over the years, it’s sensing threats – real or imagined – to their undisputed power, and cracking down forcefully.
Like an elephant afraid of a mouse, the military has long held a particular animus against student activists above practically all other “threats” to state security.
Trouble might have been expected over the past few weeks, then, as thousands of students have been on the march around the country protesting a controversial education bill approved by parliament in September, but the security services have been uncharacteristically gun-shy.
The students’ demands – which include less centralized control over universities and the legalisation of student unions – might not seem particularly controversial or threatening at first glance.
But the architects of Myanmar’s independence from Britain were themselves student activists, including Aung San, the father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the founder of Myanmar’s military. Since independence, student-led uprisings – in 1962, 1974, and, most notably, 1988 – have posed existential threats to uncontested military power.
This history plays deeply on the collective consciousness of the security forces, which are wary of the students’ demands snowballing into a broader mass movement, particularly in an election year that will make or break the legitimacy of the country’s military-derived political order.
Student opposition to the new legislation, which governs tertiary education, started last November with two days of wildcat protests at Yangon University. Dissent escalated in mid-January after the expiration of a 60-day deadline set by the students for parliament to reform the bill. The government’s inaction was met by a nationwide string of protest marches that have continued since.
The government subsequently acquiesced to establishing a four-way dialogue between Myanmar’s education ministry, parliament, student groups and a coalition of more than 200 civil society groups known as the National Network for Education Reform (NNER).
The talks have thus far occurred only in fits and starts and have not been fruitful, with both sides steadfastly holding their ground. But the fact that the government agreed to dialogue at all is an improvement over its recent treatment of dissenters, even if the depths of its tolerance have not yet been thoroughly tested.
The authorities have been surprisingly laissez-faire over the marchers. Under Article 18 of Myanmar’s controversial “peaceful protest” law passed in 2012, demonstrations require explicit permission from local authorities to be lawful; over the past two years, scores of dissenters have been arrested for failing to obtain these permissions. In December, six student activists protesting the education bill in the city of Toungoo were charged under this law.
But as dissent has escalated, the authorities have apparently chosen not to employ these same mechanisms. Although student marchers have been routinely stopped and re-routed by the police over the past month, there have been no arrests or new charges laid this year.
The marchers have largely enjoyed a positive reception, with local bystanders providing them with refreshments and encouragement. If the police crack down too hard, they will invariably run the risk of catalysing a popular backlash, echoing the ill-fated student-led uprising in 1988 that ultimately led to Aung San Suu Kyi’s ascent to prominence and the birth of the country’s long-stifled democracy movement.
Despite this genesis, Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have actively distanced themselves from the protests. On Monday, the party formally severed ties with Dr. Thein Lwin, a member of the party’s central committee, for acting as a NNER representative in talks with the government, claiming his activities constituted a conflict of interest.
The fact that the NLD has declined to champion the students’ demands may serve as a major dent in its credibility in the run-up to polls later this year. Because they have no allegiance to the established opposition, the current crop of student leaders may evolve into a new, independent force if they choose to join the formal political process at some point in the future.
A crackdown may still be on the horizon. Last week, Myanmar’s hardline Minister of Home Affairs, Lt-Gen Ko Ko, claimed that the protests posed a threat to the country’s stability, while an announcement in the state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper asserted that “political organizations [and] so-called students” were conspiring to “create unrests [sic]”.
It’s a spectre that has been invoked before, and the consequences for similar uprisings in the past have been dire. But the government has shown a level of restraint that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Whether the calm will hold as the students continue to raise the stakes is now the key question.