Has Aung San Suu Kyi turned her back on Burma’s student protesters?
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Has Aung San Suu Kyi turned her back on Burma’s student protesters?

One suspects that General Aung San, a former student activist, would be horrified that his daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, threatened National League for Democracy (NLD) member Thein Lwin with legal action for supporting protesting students.

Student activism has a long, proud history in Burma. The first student strikes in Burma were at Rangoon University in 1920 when students were protesting against the University Act being brought in by the British.

Aung San was a student leader at Rangoon University and became the president of both the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU) and the All-Burma Students Union (ABSU).

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself is probably far less aware of the struggles facing Burmese students having never attended university in Burma

Even if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be ignoring students’ historic past in Burma’s struggles for independence today’s student protesters are clearly very aware of it. At protests last November Ma Phyo Phyo Aung, one of the student leaders said: “We honour the veteran students who took part in the first student protest in 1920. The struggle for democratic education has not been completed until now.”

The students have been protesting against the new education bill and are fighting to have it amended. Aspects of the bill they disagree with include the banning of student unions, the centralisation of educational control away from universities to the government, the lack of provision for teaching in ethnic languages ,and the lack of free education above primary level.

They are backed in their demands by the National Network for Educational Reform (NNER), a network formed in 2012 that includes members of teachers unions, ethnic education groups, 88 Generation Peace and Open Society members, and monks.

Students first started holding protests against the educational bill at various universities across the country in September 2014. The protests culminated in protests in Rangoon from November 14-17 last year.

University students march to protest against Burma's National Education Law in Yangon in November. Pic: AP.

University students march to protest against Burma’s National Education Law in Yangon in November. Pic: AP.

On November 17 the students suspended their protests and gave the government 60 days to respond to their demands, threatening a national boycott if the government did nothing.

After receiving no response from the government the students resumed their protests on January 20 when a group of students started marching from Mandalay to Rangoon.

After a standoff between student protesters and the police outside the town of Taungtha on Tuesday, January 27 the government agreed to hold four way talks to discuss the education bill in return for the students suspending their march.

Talks were held in Rangoon University on February 1 between the students’ Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE), the NNER and members of the government and parliament.

Thein Lwin, who is a temporary member of the NLD central executive committee and has acted as its education spokesperson, attended the meeting in his capacity as an NNER member.

The NLD then issued a statement saying that Thein Lwin was not representing the NLD at the meeting and was only there representing the NNER. It also threatened him with legal action for violating NLD rules that require members to seek committee approval before becoming involved in other organisations.

(MORE: Burma government says student protest threatens stability)

According to a report in Mizzima Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said: “I told Dr Thein Lwin that if he wants to work as an executive of the NNER or if he wants to pursue activities for the NNER, he can be an ordinary NLD member, but he cannot be a member of the central executive committee.

“Earlier I told him to choose one of the two options. If he is enthusiastic to [support] the NNER, he has the right to freely stand for the group. But according to the rules of the NLD, he cannot continue holding a position in the NLD.”

The ACDE countered with it’s own statement that accused the NLD of trying to disrupt the student movement at a critical time. It criticised the NLD’s timing and said that it was attempting to ‘indirectly’ object to the students’ protests and could delay future discussions.

This is not the only time recently that the NLD has shown itself to be a stickler for the rules, whatever the cost.

In January an NLD MP, Daw Khin San Hlaing, submitted a proposal to parliament to exclude temporary citizens, also known as white card holders because of the colour of their ID cards, from voting in the constitutional referendum due to be held in May.

Many of the approximately one million white card holders are from the persecuted Muslim minority Rohingya group, whose plight Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been notably silent on. Many people believe that her refusal to speak out for them is because she is worried that it will lose her votes from Burma’s mainly Buddhist population.

The reason Daw Khin San Hlaing gave for submitting the proposal was that under amendments made to the Political Parties Registration Law last year white card holders should not be allowed to vote in the constitutional referendum.

She ignored the fact that the amendments she was referring to had been proposed by the Rakhine National Party who do not want the Rohingya to be allowed to take part in politics and regard them as ‘Bengali’ foreigners who should be kicked out of the country, despite the fact that some have been in Burma for generations and that most would be stateless if they left Burma, which could cause them immense suffering.

Daw Khin San Hlaing also went against the advice of U Ko Ni, the chairman of Laurel Law Firm and a legal advisor to the NLD on constitutional reform who said excluding white card holders from the referendum vote could lead to them being barred from taking part in this year’s elections, which he believes is wrong.

According to Mizzima he said: “They may be citizens, they are not foreigners, so I think they need to get the right to vote.”

Despite the obvious unfairness of this law and the fact that its implementation could cause about a million people to become wrongly disenfranchised and undergo further hardship and suffering, Daw Khin San Hlaing and the NLD clearly believe that insisting an unjust law is upheld is far more important than possibly alleviating the suffering of a million people.

Another example of how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seems to regard rules as more important than morals are her views that contracts given to companies mining copper at Letpadaung mine by the previous military regime should be upheld, even though all the locals oppose the mine and say that if it continues it will cause them hardship and suffering.

It seems that rather than being revolutionary politicians with conviction and vision the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are turning out to be timid small-minded petty bureaucrats.

One wonders whether they will be capable of supplying the visionary leadership Burma so badly needs.