Universities, professors and students still under attack

As the one-year anniversary of the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar approaches, university students’ unions, activists and anti-junta organisations are urging civilians to continue to take part in the silent strike, part of anti-authoritarian mobilisation activities on 1 February.

After the coup, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) began with thousands of students, teachers, lawyers and different professionals nationwide protesting, going on strike or boycotting military-run institutions, disrupting the ordinary functioning of the country.

Universities were reopened by the military junta on 6 January, but few students are attending as many have been imprisoned, fled or are in hiding for fear of arrest. A year after the 1 February coup, students and professors continue to be arrested and sentenced for their part in peaceful protests following the coup. Some have died in custody or have been brutally tortured.

But others are undeterred, preparing for coup anniversary protest activities.

The University Students’ Union Alumni Force, a group of former union members, urged people to stay indoors from 10am until 4pm on the coup anniversary in protest.

“We will do good deeds for our comrades who have given their lives, who were tortured, killed and who are held in prisons,” the group said.

“At the end of the silent strike at 4pm, there will be loud applause as clapping strikes from the civilians across the country. After a big applause that the fascists are afraid of, we will bang pots and pans to drive out terrorist fascists,” the group urged.

The military junta has already announced that action would be taken against people who take part in such protests in the run up to the 1 February anniversary. This week the authorities under the military council said shop owners would be punished if they close their shops, blaring this out through loud tannoy announcements in towns.

The military authorities said in a statement published in the state-run publication, The Global New Light of Myanmar, on 26 January that those engaging in noisy protests – including “clapping, banging pots and pans or car honking horns to disrupt the state stability and intimidate the public via their Facebook accounts” – could be charged with high treason under the anti-terrorism law or with agitating against the military.

Moreover, the movable and immovable properties that are related to the crimes will be confiscated if perpetrators are found guilty.

The statement said that if people participate, action would be taken under the Counter-Terrorism Law Section 52(a), Penal Code Section 124-A, which criminalises any attempt to “excite disaffection towards the government”; and Section 505-A, which criminalises comments that “cause fear” or “spread false news”; and the Electronic Transactions Law Section 33(a) which allows the government agencies to access personal data in criminal investigations; and under other existing laws.

Silent strikes were held nationwide on 24 March last year and on 10 December, which was International Human Rights Day, “to show the world that the power belongs to the civilians, not the military council”, according to the organisers.

The University Students’ Union Alumni Force said this week: “Being silent does not mean fear. It means that the civilians own their cities and their villages,” and shows it is a “mass movement against dictatorship that the whole country participates in”.

Universities reopened in January

The Myanmar military junta reopened universities across Myanmar on 6 January for masters degree classes and third-year students, nearly a year after the coup, but not for first- and second-year students. In May 2021, universities reopened for final-year students of four-year undergraduate degrees after being closed for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But there has been no new intake of first-year students at any universities.

“Most students were arrested and some students joined the People’s Defence Force (PDF) to fight against the military. There are only a few students and teachers who are close to the military or who are families of the military who will go to the universities,” a mathematics professor at East Yangon University told University World News.

“I heard the students only give their names and enrol, but they don’t go to the university as they fear arrest.”

Chit Win Maung, a former chairman of Magway Technological University Students’ Union, arrested with 40 other students on 28 February 2021 after a peaceful protest in Magway Township, was released along with others on 19 October 2021 after eight months in prison.

He told University World News the military reopened the university in January just to demonstrate that the system under the military council was functioning. “When I was in prison, I saw lots of university students, lecturers and teachers who were arrested,” he said.

Distance education universities, closed since 2020 due to the COVID-19 surge, were unable to open after the military seized power in February 2021. Despite unrest and the ongoing crisis, the military reopened distance learning universities on 22 January, but only a few students are attending, according to a non-CDM Mawlamyine University lecturer who is still teaching there.

She told University World News that normally around 150 to 200 students attend distance learning courses at Mawlamyine University, but only four showed up this January.

“Education has worsened not only because of COVID but because of the coup. We don’t know what’s going to happen to education as this has been disrupted since the coup,” a final-year Myanmar major student from Dagon University told University World News.

‘Stand with students who gave their lives’

Htet Aung, vice-chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), in a message delivered via friends while he is in prison, urged people not to attend universities in order to stand with students who gave their lives and who are in ‘liberated areas’ – mainly minority regions where ethnic groups have set up armed groups – to fight against the military junta, ABFSU said on their Facebook page.

Htet Aung was arrested in October 2020 for protesting against the civil war and the military dictatorship in Rakhine State. He was released five months after the coup and was arrested again on 6 September 2021.

Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University Students’ Union said that of 452 undergraduate students at the university previously, only 15 students are attending now.

Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University’s students are still participating in CDM, the union said, and added that “at present, some Myanmar Aerospace University students from Kayah State and Sagaing Division are fleeing from the war between the Myanmar army and the People’s Defence Force, and former students from our university and a fifth-year undergraduate student have been arrested and imprisoned by the military”.

Professors and students sentenced for protesting

A year after the coup, students and professors continue to be arrested and sentenced. Most students and teachers protest peacefully, so the military can only charge them with incitement under Section 505-A of the Penal Code, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison, a mathematics professor from East Yangon University told University World News.

Almost all the students and academics who were arrested were charged under Section 505-A and some have already been sentenced. However, “there will be additional charges as the military can sentence them with any charges,” she added.

She said one of her students, Aung Phone Maw, a fourth-year mathematics student at the University of Yangon, who is also a member of the central executive committee of the University of Yangon Students’ Union, was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour on 22 December.

Arkar Moe Thu, a professor at the department of oriental studies, Yangon University, was sentenced to three years in prison on 17 January, according to the University of Yangon Students’ Union. He was arrested in March 2021 when he led a strike that month that was joined by teachers and staff members from various universities at the so-called ‘Civil Disobedience Movement compound’ in Hline Township, Yangon.

Kyi Htin Paw, a mathematics associate professor at Yangon Technological University, a member of the Representative Committee of University Teachers’ Associations as well as a member of the Federal Democracy Education Coordination Network, told University World News that he was with Arkar Moe Thu when he was arrested on 2 March last year.

“They do whatever they want with the law. No law necessary if they want to do something,” Kyi Htin Paw said, noting that Arkar Moe Thu was arrested on 2 March, but the military announced it on 10 March, backdating it to say he was charged under Section 505-A on 1 March. “They did not even issue a warrant for his arrest first,” Kyi Htin Paw said.

“When we were busy delivering the placards and posters, two cars arrived. Then two men came out from the car at MICT park [a university area in Hlaing Township] in Yangon. After that Dr Arkar Moe Thu was bound by two men and another two men in civilian clothes came and pointed guns at our group and took Dr Arkar Moe Thu at gunpoint. The gunman shouted: ‘We, the Myanmar army, will annihilate you’.”

Kyi Htin Paw, Arkar Moe Thu and 13 other professors were charged with incitement under Section 505-A. State media on 10 March last year claimed they were the main leaders of CDM. State media also claimed a CDM support committee had been formed with 15 scholars including Arkar Moe Thu.

“The military did not have full information about our committee. Actually, the CDM support committee was formed with a lot of academics from different universities all around Myanmar on 12 February,” Kyi Htin Paw said.

People all over Myanmar support CDM because it plays the most important role in this ‘Spring Revolution’ and this was the very first revolution against the military council, he said.

“Over 500,000 government employees in Myanmar joined CDM and over half of them are from education departments. Over 200,000 are from basic education and over 40,000 are from higher education,” he noted.

Junta’s extrajudicial killings and torture

Student activists and CDM teachers have been tortured following their arrest and some have died in custody.

Yar Zar Min Din, a former civil engineering student at Yangon Technological University, was shot dead by the armed wing of the military junta in Taze Township in Sagaing Region on 21 January.

Aung Bone Kyaw (20), a third-year geology student at the University of Yangon, was reported dead to his family a day after being taken to an interrogation centre on 26 December 2021. He was arrested by the military on 26 December in Tamwe Township, according to the University of Yangon Students’ Union.

Another third-year geology student, Thura Aung, was arrested with him and they were sent directly to the interrogation centre, but nothing is known about the condition of Thura Aung.

Myat Thu, a member of Yadanabon University Students’ Union, a CDM boycott leader from Mandalay, was captured by the military on 4 July last year.

Other political activists were tortured atrociously and inhumanely by stabbing their anuses with a bamboo stick and other sexual abuses while in military custody, according to an ABFSU statement. ABFSU added that torture victims are not allowed to receive medical treatment.

Some 89 political activists including a member of the ABFSU central executive committee, Zaw Htet Naing, a former chairman of the Yangon University of Education Students’ Union, detained after taking part in protests against the military coup in February, were subjected to violent beatings and human rights abuses after they took part in a silent strike at Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison on International Human Rights Day on 10 December, according to the ABFSU statement.

“We have learned that Zaw Htet Naing was kept in iron fetters and unconscious after being seriously injured. As family members could not contact him and we do not know his health condition, we are concerned that his life is in danger,” the statement said.

The statement urged civil society, human rights and revolutionary organisations to campaign for the civil rights, and health and safety of imprisoned student leaders and political activists.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 1,494 people are now confirmed killed by the junta since the coup. The actual number of fatalities is likely to be much higher.

As of 26 January, a total of 8,783 people are currently in detention. Around 645 have been sentenced in person, of whom 45 were sentenced to death, including two children. Some 1,966 are evading arrest warrants, while 118 have been sentenced in absentia, of whom 39 have been sentenced to death in absentia.

In total, 84 have been sentenced to death in person and in absentia.