Military re-opens universities but few students attend

Myanmar’s military government has this week re-opened universities, colleges and institutes for doctoral courses, masters studies (written test) and final-year undergraduate students, partly to show the country is functioning normally.

But only a handful of students attended, according to witnesses and student union sources across the country.

The state-run newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar said the education ministry re-opened 134 universities on 6 May, following COVID-19 health rules, and described students as ‘satisfied’ that universities had resumed so that they could grasp the opportunity for learning and jobs. Teachers arrived on campuses on 3 May to prepare for teaching, it said.

A mathematics lecturer at Mawlamyine University who withdrew from the civil disobedience movement (CDM) to protect her family told University World News that some students attended class but she thought more students might come in the weeks ahead.

“They are watching each other to see whether they should go to school or not,” she said.

“Some university teachers have already withdrawn [from CDM] and come to class now because of threats made by the military junta,” said the lecturer.

The military government has said teachers must resign from CDM and sign a pledge not to take part in CDM activities before they can return to their teaching posts.

Myanmar’s universities were closed for over a year because of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Then the students did not attend universities in 2021 due to the military coup.

Myanmar’s military regime invaded and seized control of more than 60 schools and university campuses across Myanmar in March, a month after the 1 February coup.

As universities re-opened, protests were held around the country against the ‘military slavery education’ system, calling for a boycott of universities. A large number of military armed forces, police and traffic police were stationed in front of the universities all around the country, witnesses told University World News.

“They check students’ bags and ask for students’ IDs at the university gates. They seemed only eager to search bags, and not interested in taking temperature measurements to prevent coronavirus,” a final-year botany student at Dagon University, Yangon, said. She said only a few students had attended classes this week.

Two explosions occurred in front of Mawlamyine Education College on 4 May, injuring a security guard. Explosions have been occurring with increasing frequency across Myanmar since last month. It is unclear who is behind them.

Students against military coup

Although universities are now open, the military continues to brutally kill and arrest students who are against them. Over 100 were killed on 27 March alone across Myanmar.

Hlyan Phyo Aung, a third-year engineering student at the Yenangyaung Government Technical Institute in Magway Region, lost his right hand due to shooting by military forces; his right eye was blinded and his left leg was shot at close range, leaving him paralysed.

“Even if they tell him to come back to university, I won’t allow him to. We don't need to go to university under a military dictatorship that kills many innocent people who are sacrificed for the country,” a family member told University World News sorrowfully.

This week students from the institute painted the gates and signs outside the campus in red (signifying blood) in opposition to the junta’s efforts to re-open schools and universities.

Currently, only protesters are on the streets and most of them are students, a second-year student at Mandalay University told University World News. Students all around Myanmar have chosen to do what they think is right and fight against the military coup. Some have chosen to protest peacefully until now but others, like him, chose to take armed action, he said, adding that he had just come back from military training for a month with an ethnic armed group.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), at least 772 people have been killed since the coup, and 3,738 are currently in detention; of those, 84 have been sentenced.

Some 1,478 have been issued arrest warrants. Of those evading arrest, 20 have been sentenced to death in absentia and 14 to three years’ imprisonment with hard labour.

Expulsions, suspensions and warrants

At least 90% of students and teachers had joined CDM before universities re-opened and many have been forced by the military to return to universities, with many who joined CDM targeted for arrest and issued with a warrant.

Around 20 people a day, including education staff who participated in CDM, were issued arrest warrants, state-run newspapers and television reported.

The Ministry of Education on 28 April issued an order to dismiss 41 people – 14 officials and 27 staff – of the ministry’s Department of Higher Education for participating in CDM.

On 6 May, 72 teachers, including associate professors, from the Technological University (Toungoo), were suspended by the military. Another 94 teachers, including professors, rectors and 55 staff members, of the Mandalay University of Foreign Languages and 339 staff, including professors, from the University of Yangon were suspended by the military on the same day.

Many teachers are returning to institutions, worried that they could lose their jobs. The military has expelled staff under the education ministry who participated in CDM. Teachers from various townships who took part in protests against the coup have been charged under Section 505 (a) of the criminal code, which makes it a crime to circulate any ‘statement, rumour or report’ which could cause any military person to fail to carry out his duties.

On the other hand, some 32 people, including deputy chiefs of staff, professors from universities and some officials from various departments under the ministry of education, who threatened or coerced CDM education staff have been blacklisted by Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) set up by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) on 26 April.

CRPH is made up of members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), elected during polls held in November 2020 which were overturned by the military. The NUG was formed with members of the NLD and ethnic groups that have been fighting the military regime for decades.

Zaw Wai Soe, the NUG education minister, announced that the people’s government (NUG) would not ‘recognise’ the blacklisted people or their positions.

Ja Htoi Pan, NUG deputy education minister, told University World News that teachers participating in CDM were under pressure in various ways. “There are difficult situations to deal with currently. We have noted and recorded everything. I want to say again, we can never trust the military with our education system.”

“We have built this whole revolution [against the military] on the involvement of CDM staff. We respect every one of them. We are also trying to get international help,” she said.

NUG education plans

Ja Htoi Pan, a member of Myanmar’s Kachin ethnic group, told University World News a federal education system would be formed under an NUG administration. She said the NUG is working on an interim education plan in the meantime, to ensure education continues.

The longer-term plan would be for a federal, decentralised education system, she said, describing the proposed education system under the NUG as so different from the military’s system, it was like “water and oil”.

Myanmar had been under dictatorship for many decades, and education has been left behind, especially the education of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, she said. The NUG wants “a form of education that encourages the ability to think freely and encourages creativity. It is education that promotes logical thinking”.

“Children will be able to compete internationally. The quality of education in Myanmar will improve,” she promised.

The past NLD government had tried to reform education and pursued decentralised policies. It included independent education (for ethnic regions), but this was not possible in practice because the 2008 constitution gave most of the power to the centre, Ja Htoi Pan said.

“It was not the education we ethnic peoples wanted. The federal education [system] we are planning now is good for everyone including ethnic nationalities. Ethnic minorities will be able to create the kind of education systems they desire – the kind of system that will enable them to safeguard their languages, cultures and histories and narratives.”

She said that with decentralisation and power sharing with local governments, federal education will be more successful and decentralised.

Meanwhile, the University of Yangon Students’ Union has announced the founding of an online Federal University to make up for the ‘deceleration’ of education under the military regime. “We are also trying to provide lectures over radio and television channels. Conceived by and using ideas and visions of students at the forefront of the federal democracy movement,” the union said in a statement.

The new online university has been made possible by the “unrelenting efforts” of student unions, teachers and professors who are part of the civil disobedience movement and academics, both domestic and foreign, it said.

It said the Federal University would create a learning and teaching environment that is free, critical, encourages experimentation and is research-oriented. The university has set up a network among schools and universities in the federated ethnic areas of Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan, as well as autonomous institutions from mainland Myanmar.