Globe and Mail (Canada): Myanmar students prepare for freedom in a candlelit room – Mark MacKinnon Wed 9 Mar

2011 Filed under: Inside Burma Although repression has left many of their contemporaries apathetic about politics, a dedicated 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 to allow the lesson to continue. In a tiny and nondescript fifth-floor apartment, two dozen young people – activists, journalists, students – sit on plastic stools, reading and debating a text called “What Is Social Science?” that their 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 26year-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’s students know even less, Ms. Mya Nandar said, about Gen. Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in honour of her long fight to bring democracy to the country. Most of the students are studying by candlelight out of fealty to the woman many in Myanmar 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 seven years of house arrest, the students at the Bayda Institute are trying to deliver on what little Ms. Suu Kyi has thus far asked 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 modern communications to connect with each other and broaden the campaign for democracy, even though 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 Kyi has 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, boycotted elections that were held last year, arguing they were neither free nor fair. The new parliament

is dominated by military men 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 political landscape. Her followers, meanwhile, are focusing on establishing the NLD – which lost its status 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 the younger generation to question what the government tells them and to debate what they can do about it. He said civil society in Myanmar has grown rapidly in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which brought a rare influx of foreign aid money, and with it international relief 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. But the 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 need to focus on capacitybuilding.” He’s also very aware of the fact Myanmar’s feared military intelligence agents could shut down 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 invited security officers to sit in on its classes. “We’re not doing this so that we can all go to prison. Misunderstandings or fear on the government side is very dangerous for us,” Mr. Naung Thein said, admitting 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 effort to 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’s young people. The failed 2007 “Saffron Revolution” – which saw soldiers open fire on monk-led demonstrations – has killed almost all appetite for politics among those 25 and younger. At a skate park east of Rangoon, two dozen young people take turns trying to impress each other with jumps off the end of a rusted and graffiti-strewn ramp. The skaters are typically anti-establishment – they hate the music industry, and cover songs in particular – but politics is purposefully the last thing on their minds. “I don’t care about politics. I’m just interested in skating,” explains Khent Hein, the 27-yearold 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.

“I’ve never heard any of my friends talking about The Lady or any of the big generals. We just talk about skating and music.” Those that do choose to get involved say they feel isolated from their friends. “My friends are more into music and going out and Internet chatting, they’re not into politics,” said Thiri, a pencil-thin 20-year-old English major at Dagan University who supplements her formal education with the NLD night classes. “Some of my friends are scared of me. They think politics is dangerous.”


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful