Released student activists ponder their future

Among the 651 political prisoners released by President Thein Sein under an historic 13 January amnesty were some of Myanmar’s most popular politicians and activists, including 1988-generation student leaders Min Ko Naing, Ko Mya Aye and Ko Ko Kyi.

There were also around 15 student activists who had been enrolled at universities in Yangon, the former capital, when the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’ erupted and who had subsequently been jailed.

The 2007 demonstrations began when people became outraged at increases in the price of petrol after government subsidies were removed. The protests started with Buddhist monks and some rights activists marching peacefully through the city. They were soon joined by civilians and students. Hundreds were arrested in the subsequent crackdown.

The young students released this month are lagging far behind in their education, and are unsure whether they will be permitted to continue their interrupted studies. They feel young people face a future of limited job opportunities, in a country they say has barely changed.

Seeking permission

Arr Kar Bo, a 29-year-old second-year medical student, said he did not finish his degree because he enjoyed taking part in political activities and dropped out to become an activist. He was arrested in 2008 in the wake of the Saffron Revolution and sentenced to five years in jail.

Ko Si Thu Maung (24) was charged in 2009 when he was involved in the Burma Federation of Students Unions, and had his 11.5-year sentence reduced during an earlier amnesty. He told University World News that he was unsure whether he could pick up his studies where he left off.

Arrested at a student meeting that was deemed illegal, Maung was in the final year of an undergraduate statistics degree in Yangon. He has been told he has to submit an application form to his old university but his future is still uncertain. “I have to go to the university to get permission to study again,” Maung said.

According to university regulations, full-time students cannot rejoin a course if they have missed three consecutive academic years. There are currently no special exemptions for students who have been in jail.

Soe Win Oo, who is known as ‘Doctor Bio’, is education adviser at the Asia Pacific Scholarship Consortium, a network of universities in South East Asia that facilitates overseas educational opportunities for students from Myanmar and other countries.

Oo said anyone, old or young, should be allowed to study. “Internationally, there are a lot of opportunities for people who want to study. But in Myanmar, there is a strict rule that anyone who missed three years cannot go back to school.”

Going abroad

Some of the freed students may have to go abroad if they want to continue their degrees, but this is not an easy option.

“I don’t know whether I can study here [in Myanmar]. That’s why I applied to get a passport,” said Ma No No, who was a student before being arrested. She said the authorities had delayed approving her passport application for a year because she had been a political prisoner, leaving her unsure about whether she will be able to leave.

“I don’t have a plan to study abroad. I just want to study here,” said Ko Si Thu Maung, the former student leader.

He said if the country was truly heading towards a more democratic system, the released students would be allowed to study again. “Our country is not really changing even though our government is saying they are on the way to democracy.”

Some students may be able to continue via distance learning. Ordinary prisoners can enrol in distance education courses without permission, but former political prisoners must apply to the Ministry of Education. If they are rejected, Myanmar’s president will make a final decision.

“If we can’t get permission from the ministry, we will send a letter directly to the President,” Maung told University World News.

Yae Myat Hein (21) a just-released former student from Phaw Kant, was sentenced to 10 years but was in jail for four. “It depends on our president what I do next. If his approach towards us is positive, we will also respond in a positive way,” said Hein.

Left behind

Former students incarcerated because of political activities feel they are not only way behind in their formal education. At a time when young people have adapted to technologies such as computers and the internet, some just-released students are only now starting to learn how to use them.

“I felt so discouraged when I was released from jail because most young people are advancing so fast in this modern day and I felt I was left far behind. I have to try hard to catch up,” said De Nyine Lin, who was sentenced to 15.5 years but released after four.

He had to interrupt his degree course at the Institute of Economics in Yangon. “I will study over again,” he said. “I will attempt to get an official permission so that I can become a student one more time.”

But even if he completes his degree, prospects may not be good. Lin said he was not that interested in politics, but had joined the uprising in 2007 because of limited opportunities for young people.

“Even if students have a university degree, it’s still very difficult to get jobs. That was why most of the students could not bear it and didn’t hesitate to join the uprising when the price of gasoline rose,” he said.

“I knew that I could be arrested if I took part in politics in Myanmar. But I just risked my life. If we didn't do it, the new generation will suffer as we have.”