Resistance fighters defer studies, focus on regime change

For students who fled into the jungle after the military takeover in Myanmar, trying to pursue an education has become less of a priority than defeating the military junta. While some still nurse dreams of going back to school or of studying abroad, they say it can only happen “after the revolution”.

Since the military seized power in a coup in February 2021, doctors, dentists, nurses, teachers and students who have been part of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), the non-violent boycott of government-run institutions under the control of the military, have sought refuge in areas of Myanmar under the control of ethnic armed organisations, many of which, including the Karen and Kachin groups, have been fighting against the Yangon government for decades.

Some students have taken up arms themselves. There are no reliable figures for the number of university students who have joined the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) – armed groups in different regions that oppose the military government and which are either affiliated with or commanded by the ethnic armed organisations.

Alternative education services have been set up under the National Unity Government (NUG), the government in exile which was formed by pro-democracy parties following the coup.

When asked by University World News, Spring University, which offers interim education to young people who have dropped out of university or had to flee, said for security reasons it was unable to provide data on the number of university students who turned to ethnic armies and those who are receiving the alternative education.

However, some 300 PDF battalions and columns have been formed nationwide, according to a statement from the NUG’s Ministry of Defence to mark the second anniversary of the emergence of PDFs after the 2021 coup.

Education reforms needed

A Lat Ma, who is a fundraiser at a PDF battalion in Kalay, Chin State, western Myanmar, which borders on Bangladesh and India, said the battalion consisted of young fighters. Most were university students who discontinued their studies when they got involved with resistance forces.

Electricity is not a problem for PDF battalion 6 in Kalay. They have solar power panels and the internet is cut off only if junta forces approach nearby villages. A Lat Ma is therefore able to study English online in his spare time. He follows Facebook pages that offer free English listening and speaking content.

After he passed the secondary school matriculation exam, he took a distance learning course from Monywa University of Economics. By the time the military seized power, he was a third-year student. He joined the CDM first and then Kalay PDF.

“What we have in mind is the success of the revolution. We have nothing else in mind,” A Lat Ma told University World News.

He admitted he disliked Myanmar’s education system even before the coup occurred, saying it was just “parrot learning”. College graduates end up in blue collar jobs or as domestic workers overseas. “I took distance education just to have a graduation certificate to satisfy my parents,” he said.

Despite his criticism of the education system, A Lat Ma believes it can be improved if military rule is ended. “Not only will the end of dictatorship mean the development of a new education system but also [changes to] all other sectors. That’s why we are fighting,” he said.

‘We only think of fighting’

Min Han Htet was a third-year philosophy student at Dagon University, Yangon, and chairperson of Dagon University Student Union at the time of the coup. He fled to an ethnic area in September 2021. Before that he led anti-dictatorship movements, calling on students to join the CDM.

“Since we fled to the jungle, we only think of fighting till the dictatorship collapses. My friends have the same revolutionary spirit,” Min Han Htet told University World News, although he himself has not taken up arms but acts as a fundraiser for the PDF.

He said his university philosophy courses failed to encourage him to think or broaden his mind. He had low marks in his exams and sometimes failed them. “I need classroom activities that stretch my thinking. Instead, I had to memorise formulas. So, I sought out philosophy books and read for my own development,” Min Han Htet said.

He and his friends in the jungle – who were studying economics, engineering, English and Myanmar languages before the coup – have not joined online classes.

“From the time they were in the jungle, they failed to keep abreast of educational activities,” he said, despite the existence of alternative online courses. They have limited access to electricity and internet, or enough devices such as laptops and smartphones to continue their learning.

“They are in a situation where a battle can break any time. So, they are unable to study online and revise what they have studied,” Min Han Htet said of his friends who are fighters.

If there is no fighting, Min Han Htet and his friends spend time in the jungle reading books, discussing politics, debating and sharing their opinions. “The advantage is that youth spend more time reading and engaging in politics,” he said.

Derailed plans

Min Han Htet had a plan to study abroad that was derailed by the coup. “I am weak in English language and I can’t write and speak in English so I am learning the language. After the ‘revolution’, I want to accomplish my dream and go abroad,” he said, referring to the overthrow of the military government.

In a remote area in Demawso, Karenni (Kayah) State in eastern Myanmar bordering on Thailand, a regular three-month-long course designed to help fighters and internally displaced youth to learn English has been set up.

Tu Lu Ku is a CDM nursing student from Loikaw Nursing Training School in Kayah State and a volunteer at the jungle school that offers the English language course. The school uses audio clips to help improve listening skills, and books.

“As it is in a remote area, transportation is difficult and food is scarce. When the internet is extremely poor, we can’t easily search online for educational resources,” said Tu Lu Ku, a native of Demawso who was a second-year student when the military seized power.

Acts of atrocity committed by the military and the internet blackout immediately after the coup which upturned the results of the 2020 election in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy prevailed, led her to join the CDM.

Before the coup, Tu Lu Ku had planned to work in a private hospital as a nurse. But that plan was derailed and she walked away from healthcare. Now she wants to work for a non-governmental organisation.