Students' hunger strike raises fears for transition

Aung San Suu Kyi, who’s National League for Democracy party, or NLD, won a resounding victory in this month's democratic elections in Myanmar, is attempting to intercede in a hunger strike by student leaders demanding that all jailed political prisoners be set free, amid fears that unrest over the hunger strike could disrupt the post-election transition to a new government.

Some of the student leaders, jailed earlier this year in Thayarwady prison after they demonstrated against the controversial national education law, were sent in poor health to Yangon General Hospital on 14 November from Thayarwady hospital in central Myanmar where they had been transferred from Thayarwady prison.

Political leaders, including Suu Kyi, have been trying to persuade them to call off their strike. It began at the end of October, with at least a dozen other students joining in at staggered intervals.

U Win Htein, NLD spokesperson and central executive committee member, met with Aung Hmaing San and other students in hospital after Suu Kyi instructed him to do so.

"I told them [the students] we understand and recognise the students’ hunger strike, but we want them to stop their current hunger strike, because we don’t want any problems during the [post-election] transitional period and want to resolve problems peacefully,” he told University World News.

Aung Hmaing San, a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, or ABFSU, and the leader of students on hunger strike, responded that the strike is not limitless and they will stop it when it reaches a time frame, Win Htein said.

However, Aung Hmaing San, who initiated the strike with his own fast beginning on 23 October, told University World News: “I won’t call off my strike at the moment.”

“I won’t eat any food. I won’t accept any medicine and medical treatment. I told [the authorities] they could check my health condition but I won’t accept medical treatment.”


Other students have indicated they may be willing to postpone their fast, but would resume if their demands were not met. According to some reports, a number of them called off their strike on Wednesday.

Mya Aye and Ko Gyi, leaders of the so-called 88 Generation of former student leaders from the 1980s also known as Open Society, and nine other civil society and student groups such as the Former Political Prisoners Society, University Student Union, Hantharwady U Win Tin Foundation, Generation Wave and Yangon People’s Support Network have also called for the students to stop their fast.

Tin Maung Oo of the Former Political Prisoners Society said all wanted a peaceful transition of power after the elections. “Meanwhile, all want political prisoners set free. So, people in different sectors have been trying various means to free them.”

He added there were concerns the student strike could escalate. “To reduce these concerns, we call on the students to put off their hunger strike till the government transfers power peacefully,” he said.

Politicians, including from the NLD, are worried that political unrest could erupt if a student hunger striker dies. The transfer of power after the election might be at risk in such a situation.

Calls for amnesty

NLD spokesperson Nyan Win noted that students who were arrested for protesting over the current education law are still facing trial and the court process is ongoing. "The president cannot grant an amnesty for them while the process is still ongoing," he said.

The students were arrested during a violent police crackdown on 10 March this year at Letpadan in central Myanmar while they were protesting about amendments to the education law. Some 127 people including student protestors and supporters were arrested, but some were released later. Currently some 80 students are facing trial proceedings.

For these cases, some 40 witnesses need to be questioned, but the questioning of even two witnesses hasn’t been completed yet, said Robert San Aung, the students’ lawyer.

On 15 November, at a meeting between the president and the heads of political parties in Yangon, political party leaders called on the president to grant amnesty to the detained students and political prisoners during the remainder of his term.

According to San Aung, the president in December 2013 granted a pardon to some facing political charges before the cases were heard. "So these students should also be granted a pardon in this way,” he said.

He noted that amending the education law would be resolved during the new government’s term as the NLD had won the election and can control the new parliament.