The government should recognise student unions at the union level to ensure their survival, urged U Thant Zin, a student of the 88-89 Generation and former chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions of Upper Myanmar.
The gathering, held on August 30, addressed the lack of clear legal status for student unions; collected the opinions from the various unionised student’s generations; and discussed the re-construction of a building for union related activities.
The meeting came as a follow up of a prior meeting in February, which discussed the creation of a committee and the construction of a building reserved for union activities.
Federation members said they would only consider forming a building committee if student unions become free and independent.
“All student unions across the nation need to stand freely. Currently, student unions are weak. Looking at the percentage, it does not reach 50 percent of students,” said Ko Soe Thura Kyaw, chair of the Yangon University of Education Student Union.
U Phyo Min Thein, chief minister for Yangon Region, said on July 9 at Yangon University that the rights of student unions are important and all students are allowed to unionise under the current government.
“I wouldn’t qualify the current state of student unions as free. Rectors and universities authorities are still afraid and they think student unions are not needed in universities. They are also afraid by the role of unions [in Burmese Ta Ma Ga],” said Salai Thang Loon, general secretary of the Chin Student Union.
U Thant Zin, added that “if we want to change the current situation, our NLD government needs to recognise the student unions officially at union level by enshrining our rights through laws”.
As pointed out by Ko Nandar Sit Aung, a member of the student movement, the status of student unions is not yet covered under National Education Law.
Student unions have been of symbolic importance through Myanmar’s modern history as a strong force against U Ne Win’s regime. During the dictatorship, student unions were forbidden and became underground movements.
In 1962, the military government repressed a student demonstration in Yangon, which led to thousands of arrests and over 100 casualties, although the government only acknowledged 15 deaths. The next morning, the junta bombed Yangon University’s student union building, a symbol of the anti-colonial nationalist struggle since the 1920s.
Talks about rebuilding the historical building began last February. Attempt to establish a committee to deal with the matter failed, due to internal disputes among student generations, as some of them were not invited to partake of the discussion.
The issue at stake, drawing disagreement across generations, is whether to rebuild the building on the same location as it was before, or to erect a monument to celebrate the struggle of student unions against the dictatorship instead.
On February 19, the Federation released a statement urging the government not to rebuild the student union at the original site. Their position has not changed, and still clashes with former students: “The building should be at the original place with the original design,” said U Hla Shwe of the 1962 Student Generation at the August 30 meeting.