Military raid on union office kills three student leaders

Three teenage students were killed in a 28 July Myanmar military raid on the Budalin Student Union office in Budalin Township, Sagaing – a region of ongoing heavy conflict in Myanmar.

The raid on the office, reportedly by dozens of military personnel, led to the deaths of the chair of the Budalin Student Union Ko Kyaw Win Thant (18), vice-chair Ko Kyal Sin Nyein Chan (19), and the union’s information officer Ko Thuta Nay (19). Their bodies were buried by locals.

The Budalin union, affiliated to the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), is situated in a remote area in Nyaung Kan village which is in Monywa District. The union serves Monywa University and Monywa University of Economics, as well as representing secondary school students. Union offices have had to move repeatedly to more secure locations in order to avoid attacks.

The student union representatives were found dead with severe wounds after the raid, which apparently happened following a tip-off. The victims, who slept at the office, were caught unaware when the military attacked in ‘guerilla style’.

An ‘unprovoked’ attack

ABFSU described the attack as ‘unprovoked’ and said the troops surrounded the office in an ambush, so union members had no time to escape. The troops burned down the office, a village school and houses nearby, they said.

“The loss of our union leaders has affected us to some extent. Killing a revolutionary will not stop the revolution. Arrests and killings are happening since the coup. But the revolutionaries should not be stopped in this way,” an ABFSU executive member told University World News.

“They raided the union office like they were attacking an armed unit. The students were only aware when they were surrounded by troops, so they could not escape. The same day, five other civilians were killed. We assume they received a tipoff from military informants because they came straight to the union office,” he said.

According to ABSFU: Revolutions force a grip on the countryside, so student unions are based in villages. “Though they (unions) are on-ground political organisations, they secretly operate underground because of military terror attacks. Student union members in towns (have to) work in secret, let alone open offices in towns.”

ABSFU said there have been 17 Student Union member deaths to date. More than 50 members were arrested. Most of them were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned under Section 505. Prison sentences range from three years to life. Three have received life sentences and one faces the death penalty.

Other civilians in the village were also killed, but the exact number is still unknown.

The Budalin union last week posted on social media pictures of banners that had been put up around Budalin Township, and posters protesting against the military regime. The union was said to have played a role in organising township protests.

“The military subdues anyone who opposes them, not just students, children, elders, or pregnant women,” Zayar Lwin, a former chair of the Yangon Institute of Economics Student Union, told University World News.

Lwin (33), known as an activist before the coup, is now in charge of 96 PDF (People’s Defence Force – the armed wing of the National Unity Government in exile) soldiers based in middle Myanmar.

He was previously arrested in 2019 for a Thangyat performance (traditional satirical folk art during the Myanmar traditional water festival) poking fun at the military.

“From peaceful protests to opposition campaigns, student union members have opposed dictators throughout history,” he said, noting “their sacrifices were a true honour”.

Student suppression

Since the February 2021 coup, military opponents and students have been suppressed with ferocity. Last November seven students from Dagon University, Yangon were sentenced to death. In May, student prisoners were killed by the military while they were being transferred to another facility. The news only emerged in July.

ABFSU in a statement on 8 July said Khant Lin Naing, vice-chair of the Bago District Student Union, had been killed. Khant Lin Naing, who was arrested on 12 December 2021, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and was brought out of Kyaiksakaw prison in Daik-U, Bago Region, with three other prisoners on 28 May 2023 for transfer. The authorities informed his family of his death in early July.

An urgent statement released on 19 July by non-governmental organisation Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said Daik-U, a prison officer, had informed the family of Khant Lin Naing on 7 July that he had died on 27 June.

Prison officers fired shots when the prisoner transport vehicle was involved in an accident en route to another prison and the officers believed the students might flee, according to the AAPP report. AAPP added that in contravention of prison procedure and human rights conventions, “political prisoners removed from Daik-U prison remain missing without a trace. It is currently unknown whether they are dead or alive”.

Naing Tun Oo, another member of the Yin Mar Pin Student Union, is still missing, according to the statement by ABFSU. The military authorities took him from Monywa prison on 24 February 2023.

Political prisoners, including many student activists, have been transferred between prisons since last year with no advance warning to prisoners or their families. Student unions have said such transfers, which have continued this year, are designed to destroy the morale of prisoners and their families and to control activities within larger prisons.

As of 4 July, 125 students had died since the February 2021 military coup, 716 students had been detained, and 138 students – 31 of them female – had been given prison sentences, according to data compiled by AAPP. Yangon reported the highest number of arrests with 65 students.

This article was updated on 2 August 2023 to include comments from ABSFU.