BURMA: Elections - the students have been silenced

The 1988 student protests in Rangoon led to a mass uprising and the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as Opposition leader. Burmese students also participated during the 2007 monks' protests. But the student movement has been suppressed by the junta, while the outcome of the first national poll in 10 years on 7 November is far from clear.

The elections were planned after the crackdown on the 2007 monk-led demonstrations.

Previously, in 2003, when the military government attacked Aung San Suu Kyi - killing many of her supporters, and nearly killing her - many people in the country were very angry and the government wanted to reduce domestic tension and international pressure. So the regime announced a roadmap to democracy which included elections, but it did not commit to the date, and I thought elections were just a time-buying strategy by the government.

In 2003, the roadmap started with reconvening the national convention that the military initiated in 1993 to draft constitutional principles after refusing to transfer power to Aung San Suu Kyi's party, elected in 1990. But the regime postponed the convention intermittently, and indefinitely in 1996, after Aung San Suu Kyi's [National League for Democracy] party boycotted the convention.

In late September 2007, after the brutal crackdown against the monks, ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) sent its strongest messages of 'revulsion', and the UN said the status quo was not sustainable. So the military regime came up with a date for the elections, which they wanted to use to show their legitimacy.

When they set the elections for 2010 their idea was to prevent future demonstrations. It is a typical tactic of the military government, and they had done it before. In 1988 they were worried there would be further demonstrations so they promised elections so that people would wait and see rather than strike back.

The student movement was very strong before 1988. At that time there were no other political groups, no other political parties, no civil groups or community groups. Burmese university student activists sought to coordinate with other groups in society and build up and sustain the momentum of mass protests.

Farmers, who make up the majority of the population, had to struggle to make a living, and the factories are government owned. We don't have strong workers' unions in Burma. It was too risky for these sectors of society to protest.

But students are not like workers and farmers. The universities were a space to gather nationally. We were filling a political vacuum. Today we do not have a political vacuum in the same way; there are many political parties and non-governmental groups.

At that time we thought we could do something on behalf of other people. Before 1988 I thought I was going to join the military. I was studying medical science and some of my friends became military doctors. But then I saw the military beat a girl student in the street in Rangoon and that event changed my life. I felt it was not a government I wanted to join, it was not a military I wanted to join.

After the military crackdown I went into the jungle and I took up arms to fight. I was driven to fight mostly because my friend was killed by the military in the demonstrations. It feels as if it happened yesterday.

Like our brother students in the past - many leaders during [British] colonial times were student activists, and Aung San Suu Kyi's father Aung San was a student leader - we felt we should do something for our society. We had to do something to improve the situation; Burma had gone from being rich in resources to being one of the least developed countries.

The government cracked down seriously after 1988, and the students' role was increasingly restricted. At that time students came from all over the country and the authorities closed down the universities for three years, until 1991, to prevent further student demonstrations, despite the cost to development in terms of lost education.

When students in Rangoon demonstrated in 1996 calling for improved education, the regime responded forcefully arresting over 100 students. After the 1996 demonstrations most universities were closed again, this time for four years.

After 1988 the regime split up the universities and moved them outside the towns so that they did not have an impact on the [non-student] population. They also increased the number of universities so that they were not so concentrated, and the students could not gather in large universities.

Rangoon University, once the country's largest, now has no undergraduate students. They are all dispersed outside the city. The university has only graduate students - about 2,000 of them, mostly studying for PhDs.

The monks were in a similar situation to the students because they were concentrated in large monasteries. These are the second largest institutions after the military. There are about 500,000 Buddhist monks in Burma, and the same number of military personnel. They have the space to gather, especially in the teaching temples. In 2007 the monks filled the political vacuum and they had influence on the community. In that sense they were similar to the students.

In 2007 student leaders from 1988 initiated the demonstrations; when they were arrested the monks took their place. But I do not see that happening now. Many students and monks received lengthy prison sentences. In 2007 students were only one in 10 of the participants and most had connections to the 1996 and 1988 protests.

In the past people felt the students were educated and looked up to them. In 1988 people were very impressed with university students. But educational quality has been reduced since the military regime split up the universities. There are not enough teachers and equipment in the new universities and people do not feel the students are such high quality.

The military has also encouraged the students to do distance education and only go to the university at the weekend or 10 days before their exams, so most of the time they are not in the university. And there is more intelligence infiltration. More professors have been put there to inform on students. Some are offered promotion if they inform.

Academic freedom is very limited. It is very difficult to raise political issues on campus and there is no students' union in the country. Students cannot distribute pamphlets or any letters criticising the restrictions.

The regime has also asked some students to be informers. Many teachers have been trained at government institutions and have been indoctrinated by the military, though I still feel these indoctrination methods are not effective - many people come out still believing in democracy.

The general population all support Aung San Suu Kyi: she is huge in Burma, especially because of her outspokenness. People are scared to talk but she can't be silenced.

My view is there needs to be an economic reason for people to come out on to the streets, not just a political one. In 1988 it was demonetisation when the military government cancelled the banknotes and money became just paper and the people did not have money to buy food. In 2007 it was the increase in the price of petrol so people could not afford bus fares.

The outcome of the [7 November] election is difficult to predict. During the last election, in 1990, when the government refused to recognise the result - Aung San Suu Kyi won over 80% of the popular vote - there were no demonstrations.

Approaching the 2010 elections the junta has shown no willingness to compromise with the political Opposition.

Although the elections offer some hope for gradual political positive change in civil-military relations, any short-term changes are unlikely to be substantial. The military is determined to take any measures it deems necessary to avoid an outcome similar to 1990 when the pro-regime party lost the election.

Thus, despite the international community's repeated calls for free, fair and inclusive elections, the scheduled elections are likely to fall short of these standards.

The reaction of the people will depend on the result of the election. If the government declares its party has 80% of the vote, then people will know it is rigged. But if its party wins about 30% they may think it is fair. But if it says it has won 90% of the vote, then many people will be angry - though I am not sure they will go out on to the streets.

It will not be like Iran. In Burma the students have been silenced.

* Win Min served as a lecturer for Burmese programmes at Chiang Mai University, Thailand, from 2004-10, and the Thai and Southeast Asian Studies Programme at Payap University, Thailand, from 2007-10. In 1988 he was a student activist in Burma, and from 1988-2000 a member of the All Burma Students Democratic Front. Win's analysis of Burma's student movement "A historic force, forcefully met" will be published in a forthcoming book: Meredith Weiss and Edward Aspinall (Eds) Between Protest and Passivity: Understanding Student Activism in Asia. He spoke with UWN Asia Editor Yojana Sharma for this report.