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Myanmar students prepare for freedom in a candlelit room

Myanmar students prepare for freedom in a candlelit room

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Published by: NationalYouthNetwork on Apr 10, 2011
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04/10/2011

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Wed 9 Mar 2011
 
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 Inside Burma Although repression has left many of their contemporaries apathetic about politics, adedicated core of Myanmarese students are laying the groundwork for a democratic future
It’s Monday night and the power is out again in east Rangoon,
so candles are produced toallow the lesson to continue. In a tiny and nondescript fifth-floor apartment, two dozen youngpeople
– 
activists, journalists, students
– 
sit on plastic stools, reading and debating a text
called “What Is Social Science?” that t
heir teacher has printed off the Internet.It is as innocent as it is subversive.
Though most of those who gather each night at the Bayda Institute are students at Rangoon’s
universities and colleges, they come here to fill in the gaping holes in the official curriculum:social science, political science, the recent history of the country they live in.
“Many young people don’t know who General Aung San was,” said Mya Nandar, the 26
-year-old founder of a pro-democracy group known as the New Myanmar Foundation.She was referring to the founding father of the country then known as Burma, who led its
drive for independence from the British Empire before he was assassinated in 1947. Today’sstudents know even less, Ms. Mya Nandar said, about Gen. Aung San’s daugh
ter, Aung SanSuu Kyi, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in honour of her long fight to bringdemocracy to the country.Most of the students are studying by candlelight out of fealty to the woman many inMyanmar simply call The Lady. Half a dozen pictures of her adorn the classroom walls,
along with the slogan, “Towards a society of conscience.”
 While many here puzzle over the non-confrontational response Ms. Suu Kyi has taken toward
the country’s military rulers since her November release from sev
en years of house arrest, thestudents at the Bayda Institute are trying to deliver on what little Ms. Suu Kyi has thus farasked of her supporters.
“For us to achieve democracy, we will have to establish a network of people,” she said in one
of her first speeches after being freed. She called on young people to use moderncommunications to connect with each other and broaden the campaign for democracy, eventhough she herself is only now learning to use the Internet.The Bayda Institute is one of dozens of youth networks around Myanmar that have emerged
since Ms. Suu Kyi’s speech. Their aim is to be ready to play their part in what Ms. Suu Kyihas called a “peaceful revolution” in this military
-dominated country.Myanmar is now governed, at least on paper, by a civilian government after five decades of direct military rule. However, her party, the National League for Democracy, boycottedelections that were held last year, arguing they were neither free nor fair. The new parliament
 
is dominated by military m
en and the new “civilian” president is an ex
-general who was
previously the junta’s prime minister.
 For now, Ms. Suu Kyi is biding her time and trying to make sense of the new politicallandscape. Her followers, meanwhile, are focusing on establishing the NLD
– 
which lost itsstatus as a legal political party after refusing to register for the elections
– 
as a social force
and in building up Myanmar’s nascent civil society.
 
“We must bear in mind that until we grow strong we can’t do anything,” said Myo Yan
Naung Thein, a veteran of past student-led protests against the regime who now teaches theyounger generation to question what the government tells them and to debate what they cando about it.He said civil society in Myanmar has grown rapidly in the wake of the devastating CycloneNargis in 2008, which brought a rare influx of foreign aid money, and with it internationalrelief organizations, which hired and trained local staff.Despite two lengthy prison terms, the 36-year-
old’s desire to see change come
to Myanmar
hasn’t dimmed from when he joined anti
-government protests in 1988, 1996 and 2007. Butthe former student leader now talks about the classes he teaches at Bayda like a corporate
strategist. “We are networking to build strength,” he says. “We ne
ed to focus on capacity-
building.”
 
He’s also very aware of the fact Myanmar’s feared military intelligence agents could shutdown the Bayda Institute at any moment. In an effort to show the government they’re not
doing anything illegal, the group has posted all of its course material online, and even invitedsecurity officers to sit in on its classes.
“We’re not doing this so that we can all go to prison. Misunderstandings or fear on thegovernment side is very dangerous for us,” Mr. Naung Thein said, admit
ting he worries the
government could quickly close the limited political space it has opened since Ms. Suu Kyi’s
release.Another hurdle such youth networks face is a sense among young Myanmarese that any effortto change the country is doomed to fail. While previous generations of students repeatedly
took to the streets to demand change, a calculated apathy today rules among Myanmar’syoung people. The failed 2007 “Saffron Revolution” – 
which saw soldiers open fire onmonk-led demonstrations
– 
has killed almost all appetite for politics among those 25 andyounger.At a skate park east of Rangoon, two dozen young people take turns trying to impress eachother with jumps off the end of a rusted and graffiti-strewn ramp. The skaters are typicallyanti-establishment
– 
they hate the music industry, and cover songs in particular
– 
but politicsis purposefully the last thing on their minds.
“I don’t care about politics. I’m just interested in skating,” explains Khent Hein, the 27
-year-old founder of YGN Skate Zone,
Myanmar’s first skateboarding group. He and his friends
wear ball caps and sneakers, emulating the style of hip-hop stars in the faraway United States.

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