When teaching and learning turn into a political act

Around 770 university and high school students were arrested by the military regime for taking part in the recent pro-democratic protests in Myanmar. Students, teachers and higher education professionals constitute roughly one-third of all people arrested and detained in the country since the 1 February military coup, when the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, seized power.

The Tatmadaw has governed Myanmar for most of the time since the country’s independence from the British Empire in 1948. It has always treated universities and students akin to political opposition and exerted extensive state control over the higher education sector.

From this long-term perspective, the recent violent crackdown on student protests and the forced seizure of university campuses appear as eerie signs of history repeating itself.

However, while things look bleak for the protesters at the moment, their fight should not be written off just yet. The new generation of students protesting the 2021 military coup have learnt from the successes and failures of their predecessors. Higher education has provided a space for critical reflection on the past and has instilled aspirations for a democratic future.

Moreover, these students have grown up experiencing certain democratic freedoms, and the promise of more to come, that have shaped their ambitions for their lives, their communities and their country. Any future regime will have a hard time erasing these experiences and aspirations from their memories.

A historical perspective

There is a long history of student protest against the Tatmadaw and an even longer one of repression against students, teachers and universities.

The 1962 military coup which brought General Ne Win to power heralded an era labelled the ‘50-year War on Students’.

The same year, when the military government introduced stricter hostel rules on campus accommodation, students at Rangoon University (now the University of Yangon) protested and were violently suppressed by the military. This culminated in the army killing dozens and demolishing the student union building using explosives.

In 1988, fuelled by an economic downturn and dissatisfaction with authoritarianism and corruption, students led large and sustained anti-government protests. The military used the same playbook as today, shooting at and killing hundreds of protesters and imprisoning student leaders.

In parallel, the military government took steps to strip universities of their autonomy and professors and students of their academic freedom. Campuses were moved from city centres to the outskirts or remote areas to better control dissenting students. Universities were fragmented and ultimately closed down all together; a whole generation of students was denied access to higher education.

Only after 2011 did things begin to slowly improve again, as universities reopened, expanded their course offerings and improved educational quality. It took another 10 years, however, until September 2020, for the Education Ministry to grant institutional autonomy to 16 universities from Yangon and Mandalay.

This was a huge leap in the right direction and it gave hope that academic freedom was on the horizon for higher education in Myanmar. Before the 2021 crackdown, higher education in Myanmar had made significant progress. We were fortunate enough to personally experience this period of opening as visiting lecturers at the University of Yangon.

Teaching in times of change

At the end of 2020, the University of Yangon celebrated its 100th birthday. Preparations for its centennial had been well under way already in 2016-18 when we taught at the university’s department of international relations as Central European University Global Teaching Fellows. The students attending our classes were to become the first ever graduates with international relations and political science degrees in Myanmar since the democratic shift of 2011.

They faced high expectations from their families and their tutors as future country leaders responsible for the implementation of democratic reform processes. Moreover, they themselves recognised personal responsibility to engage in the country’s political process as a duty to their predecessors, those students who were actively resisting the military rule in the past and who were killed or prosecuted for their political opinions.

Young people coming to study at Yangon University from all over the country would know the names and the life histories of these students in detail. They also had opportunities to meet some of them, since former political prisoners were allowed to re-enter some university programmes via distance education.

Not only the heroic past but also the challenges of the present inspired students’ personal learning goals and motivations, encouraging critical reflection about what they read in the newspapers and in academic journals.

We happened to teach them at a time when successful public protest campaigns against Chinese businesses were still a living memory, when the Rohingya crisis was all over the international media and when the advocates of Myanmar’s constitutional reform were shocked by the assassination of its vigorous promoter, a talented constitutional lawyer, U Ko Ni.

These realities heavily shaped the context of academic discussions in our courses and those of our colleagues. The classroom was not merely a space to develop skills and competences in a discipline, but a place to collaboratively engage in the current political and social processes through analysis, reflection and research-driven debate.

These discussions were especially valuable given that some of our students came from families related to the military, while others had family members or relatives that belonged to the political opposition.

They did not always agree on the best way towards economic development, how to deal with decades of ethnic conflict or what foreign policy Myanmar should pursue, but they were convinced that democracy was the cornerstone from which to start building.

Eager to learn, students drove the learning agendas towards their own expectations and needs, focusing on gaining applied knowledge. They wanted to learn about best practices and alternative policy solutions to the multiple challenges they observed in their country’s political reality.

It was evident that, even as students, they were already thinking and acting as participants and contributors to Myanmar’s transformation process. It is unsurprising, therefore, that these students appeared at the forefront of 2021 anti-military protests. Their future, as well as the future of their country, remains uncertain.

Possible scenarios for the future

The future of Myanmar is now open to speculation. The implications of the current crisis on the country’s society and future form of governance are hard to predict. As the Tatmadaw has previously succeeded in crushing any attempts to create democratic civil movements, particularly in universities, it might succeed again.

International analysts have already concluded that Myanmar’s political experiment with democracy is over. International pressure seems to have little impact on the isolationist and nationalist generals. Hence there is little to no external leverage over what is currently happening in Myanmar.

Should the military regime prevail, the country would likely be thrown back decades in terms of political and educational freedom. Its universities would experience severe backtracking, if not complete closure.

Students and teachers who are at the heart of political activism and are the most vocal supporters of democratic government internationally would be among the prime targets for prosecution by the junta. Any democratic developments achieved to date would likely be stopped or reversed.

Still, there is room for hope, even if the worst scenario materialises. Research shows that people remain strongly attached to the values they acquire in their early life. Recent developments in Myanmar prove that previous crackdowns failed to eliminate the democratic aspirations which have been nurtured in places like Yangon University.

Remarkably, even long periods of complete university shutdown have not prevented new generations of students from continuing to fight for a more open country. Moreover, current students have declared a commitment to democratic change. Unlike their predecessors they have lived experiences of democratic governance in Myanmar between 2011 and 2020.

These experiences have been further amplified by physical and digital access to knowledge and ideas from a globalised world. The internet and social media have exposed them to new forms of political activism, networking and self-organisation. They draw inspiration from similar movements in Thailand, Hong Kong and even Ukraine.

While the military can shut down the universities and cut off the internet, it is much harder to reverse people’s mindset, erase their personal experiences of democratic liberties or take away already developed skills and competences relating to civil society and self-governance.

As such, while the Tatmadaw can try to suppress the aspirations of protesters by force, it will be hard and costly to sustain a fight against a whole generation of young, bright and resourceful citizens.

The historical trajectories we have discussed and our personal experiences of teaching in Myanmar reveal that democratic foundations are already ingrained in Burmese society. They will serve as a fruitful ground for democratic transformation to take root once the political context makes it possible.

In the meantime, universities and student unions worldwide should stand up for and stand with the protesters in Myanmar, call for their release from prison and for a halt to military violence.

They should also open up more channels to engage with Myanmar’s academic community and stand together with them to ensure that the human rights and academic freedoms of scholars and students are protected.

It is not too late. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr told Oberlin College students in a commencement address during the American civil rights movement: “The time is always right to do what is right”.

Margaryta Rymarenko is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, Central European University (CEU), Austria. E-mail: Daniela Craciun is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente, the Netherlands. E-mail: They both taught at the department of international relations, University of Yangon, Myanmar, as CEU Global Teaching Fellows. Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any affiliated institutions.