A quarter-century ago, student protests in 1988 brought a brief moment of hope — in the shape of the 1990 elections — to the oppressed citizens of Myanmar.

The National League for Democracy swept the polls under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi — but that hope was smashed into tiny pieces by the 1990 military coup d’etat, which plunged the country into another two decades of darkness.

Now students across the country are taking to the streets again. Yesterday, they did so in the nation’s second city, Mandalay. Protests have already been going on in Myanmar’s main city and former capital, Yangon.

The prime target of the protests is the national education law, which was passed by Parliament in September. While it covered the whole gamut of education from primary to tertiary, the students’ biggest gripe is it does not allow sufficient autonomy for the nation’s universities.

Myanmar’s youth are being let down by a threadbare education system that will take years to recover. For years at a time, education was neglected under a succession of military juntas, which closed down the nation’s universities, depleting the teaching stocks in the country and leaving a system that is far too focused on rote learning.

It’s a problem that pervades much of Asia, particularly and surprisingly the country’s wealthier and more confident neighbour, Thailand. So Myanmar’s students and youth have plenty to be angry about now that the government is again taking charge of something on which it has a shocking record. Students are wary that the government may clamp down on the students unions, which were banned for decades because of their leading role in the democracy movement.

When Crikey spoke to student and youth leaders at a rally outside the Sule Pagoda in central Yangon 10 days ago, there was certainly a sense that they were angry about the new education laws. But there was also a broader sense of frustration about the pace of reforms promised by the government when it set in train a remarkable program of opening up and reform.

“The government, which hasn’t really changed, have promised reforms, and it’s not really happening,” one youth leader said. “We are trying to co-ordinate it because the problem is there are too many people trying to do their own thing and the impact will be lost.”

For its part the government has offered talks, but the students want multilateral talks that involve them, the government and the universities.

Still, the very fact that protests are tolerated by a government that only seven years ago shot Buddhist monks in the streets during the abortive “saffron” revolution (let’s quickly dispose of the fiction that it’s not still the military calling the shots in the country) gives a real sense that things are at least, for now, moving in the right direction.

It’s a hoary cliche, or a truism, but Myanmar’s youth are its future. The voracious appetites for internet connectivity across south-east Asia speaks to a desire to soak up both knowledge and culture from outside the country that for so long was denied.

Myanmar’s student protests are unlikely to achieve significant change, but they have already gained at least some concessions. It’s a tough call, of course, but the leaders of the student movements should be careful they do not push a government that is reforming off its own bat too far.

More than anything, seeing other citizens protesting peacefully in Myanmar is a reason that public hope in the country is alive and well.

But the protest also raises a more fundamental issue. The new laws were written by the ruling military government and their main political opposition, the National League for Democracy, and the latter has been noticeably silent about the protests — although some NLD parliamentarians who spoke to Crikey are very supportive.

Twenty-six years on, it’s not just significant that there are once again student protests, it’s that they represent generational change in Myanmar politics and opposition to its military rulers and the limited parliamentary democracy the NLD has embraced. And a year ahead of planned elections, that’s certainly something to watch.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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