BURMA: A HISTORIC FORCE, FORCEFULLY MET
Unlike other Asian countries, Burma was under extremely repressive military-dominated governments from 1962 until 2011. However, organized opposition movements have repeatedly emerged. In most of these, Burmese university students have been in the vanguard, as one of the main social groups fighting for political, economic, and social change. Yet their role has been increasingly restricted as successive military-led governments have adapted their policies in response. While students led the country's largest political movement in 1988, toppling the military-backed one-party state, a subsequent military coup brought a new regime to power that crushed the demonstrations and killed thousands (Smith 1999, 16). This unprecedented repression and the increased restrictions that followed constrained future student activism. Thus monks, not students, led large-scale 2007 demonstrations, although students were still among the many groups participating.
The emergence of student activism in Burma has been shaped by three primary factors. The first is the sort of political vacuum referenced in the introduction in which normally prominent actors in society are not in a position to lead or initiate an opposition movement. The second is the historical legacy of earlier student activists that motivated subsequent generations. The third is a strong corporate student identity, which has prompted fellow students to come to the aid of their peers facing violent or unfair treatment by authorities. Burmese university student activists also have regularly sought to coordinate with other groups in society to build up and sustain the momentum of mass protests. Nevertheless, the possibility of coordination is largely dependent on the emergence of a political opportunity. When the regime imposed consistent and highly oppressive measures preventing the development of opposition structures and institutions, and especially at the height of such repression, it was difficult for student activists to sustain large- scale political movements.
By eliminating or undermining structures and institutions that facilitate student mobilization, military authorities disrupted student activism and forced it to go underground. Underground activists found it difficult to coordinate their efforts, and repressive measures also led some students to give up activism altogether. At the same time, Burma’s isolation from the international community has meant that New Left movements in other countries and the rise of student activism in the region have had little effect on student activism in Burma.
Taking a historical perspective, this chapter proposes that the repressive measures employed by Burma’s military authorities shaped the nature and scope of student activism in the country. After providing historical background on student activism in Burma since colonial times, this chapter will examine the factors contributing to the emergence of student activism after independence and then analyze the factors influencing cooperation and coordination between students and other actors in society. The analysis concludes with an assessment of how military-dominated governments have affected the nature and scope of Burma’s student activism.