Ever since Rangoon University was founded in 1920 as the first university in the British colony of Burma, student activism persistently influenced the development of Burma throughout entirely different regimes.
Taking advantage of the fact that the students enjoyed—together with the sangha—the greatest degree of freedom of all Burmese societal groups during the colonial times, the students positioned themselves in the vanguard of the anti-colonial movement, especially during the anti-colonial struggles of the 1930s. Rangoon University featured prominently as the centre of civil discontent in Burma during the colonial time with all three major strikes against the British rule (1920, 1936 and 1938) starting there. It was during this time, in which students filled the power vacuum left empty by the domestic opposition, that they were able to develop a strong shared student identity and became the focal point for later political student activities to come. Moreover, higher education proved crucial for elite formation, which was manifested, inter alia, in Rangoon University producing some of the most influential political leaders of Burma.
The student unions during the parliamentary phase in post-independence Burma were characterised by a relatively high degree of autonomy from the government. Nonetheless, they were able to exercise considerable political influence because of their close entanglement with the political parties on the national level. However, student activists were divided along party lines and, consequently, all three large student organisations were "affiliated to various political groups that were competing for political power”. Overall, student activities exhibited a propensity to act in favour of anti-government activities as the student unions were dominated by left-wing students who were members or supporters of various left-wing political parties.
Military rule, however, heralded a new phase of student activism in Burma characterized by violent confrontations between protesting students and government forces. On 2 March 1962, the military led by General Ne Win took control of Burma through a coup d'état. Not encountering strong resistance from any part of the Burmese society the new regime seized power almost without using any violence. The army arrested leading elites of the toppled regime, including “the president, the prime minister, members of the cabinet, and justices of the court” as well as leaders of Burmese ethnic minority groups.
Officially, General Ne Win justified the coup d’etat as an essential step in order to safeguard the unity of the Union of Burma in the light of ongoing negotiations between the central government in Rangoon and leaders of the Shan State threatening with secession from the Union of Burma.
Shortly afterwards, the new military regime formed the Union Revolutionary Council, which was exclusively occupied by high-ranking military personnel led by General Ne Win. After a brief initial phase, in which General Ne Win ruled by decree, the Revolutionary Council, on 9 March 1962, granted Ne Win extensive executive, legislative and judicial powers paving the way toward unrestricted military rule.
Additionally, immediately after the coup d’etat the military regime began to formulate a new ideological basis on which the new state should be grounded already outlining the profound transformation the Burmese society was about to experience. The Burmese Way to Socialism symbolized the military regime’s answer to the question of Burma’s place in the modern world. The socialist government’s ideology reflected „the mainstream of modern Burmese thought – nationalism and socialism“ and strived after “a highly centralised path to official autarky led by a single party and backed by a well-equipped and loyal military”.
The initial reaction of the Burmese students towards the new military regime after the coup d’etat was rather mixed. Whereas some students supported the new government due to its appealing commitment towards ‘socialist democracy’ or remained neutral for the time being, others expressed their intention to join the armed struggle of the Communist Party of Burma. The student unions protested against the seizure of power in the beginning, but changed their position very quickly after the left-wing National Unity Front—the affiliated political party of the student unions on the national level—indicated its support for the Ne Win government. As a result, „[b]y March 6, the Rangoon University Students Union, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, and the Rangoon Student Union had all endorsed the new regime.“
This, however, would change remarkably soon after the students returned to their classes after their hot-season vacation in May 1962. The new government had introduced new hostel regulations, which were as strict as never before. Some authors, referring to the military background of General Ne Win, even draw parallels to regulations commonly found in military barracks. Nonetheless, the sceptical attitude of General Ne Win towards student indiscipline was nothing new. He had already shown his discomfort in this regard during his time as prime minister of the military caretaker government, reflected for example within a speech held on 2 December 1958 in which had “indicated his concern with student unrest”.
May 1962 heralded first subtle signs of growing student discomfort, which would only a couple of weeks later culminate into a broad student protest. First, a student was expelled from his hostel because he did not get on well his warder. On 9 May, some students were arrested for demonstrating at the Dutch Embassy. On 11 May, the Rangoon University Rector had to resign due to the pressure of the Revolutionary Council and replaced with the former Education Minister of the 1958 Caretaker Government U Kar. On 17 May, the military regime introduced substantial institutional reforms ending the system of university self-administration. The Revolutionary Council dissolved the university councils of the country’s two large universities in Rangoon and Mandalay. Whereas previously it was run by a council of professors, scholars and government officials the university councils were now put directly under the control of the government. Some scholars suggest that the main reason for General Ne Win to dissolve the university councils was his conviction that the close interdependence between politics and the higher education system lead to the interference of foreign ideologies with domestic Burmese politics.
In the following weeks, the intensity of the conflict increased slowly but steadily. On 18 June 1962, even tighter hostel rules were introduced stipulating, for example, that “the hostel doors were closed and locked up, prohibiting any student coming in or going out after 8 p.m. and the students had to sign the registerbook to ascertain that they were in.”
These rules were intended to control the behaviour of the students and to ensure that they could not distribute anti-military regime materials on campus or in the city. However, the curfew cut off the students from their supply with supper, which was provided by mobile food vendors between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Consequently, the mobile food vendors came on campus to offer their food to the students. The subsequent prohibition by the Burmese authorities to sell food on campus resulted in students having to go to bed hungry. For some scholars, this was the trigger which would very soon overstretch the tolerance of the students.
The students had already disregarded the 8 p.m. curfew for three subsequent nights by breaking through the closed hostel doors, when the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU) took over the lead on 6 July 1962. The president of the RUSU, Ba Swe, announced that they would hold a meeting at the RUSU building at the next day in order to protest against the hostel regulations, which the students perceived as being highly unfair.
On 7 July 1962, the students had discussed for around an hour about the ‘unjust’ hostel rules in the Assembly Hall of the RUSU building, when some 2,000 students embarked on a peaceful protest march on Rangoon University campus to announce that they would continue to oppose the hostel regulations of the military regime Around another hour later, at 3 p.m., the protest dispersed and the students returned to their hostels and homes. However, leading members of the RUSU, including president Ba Swe, continued to further discuss the matter of hostel regulations and to define a strategy for the protests.
In the following minutes, a special dynamic evolved, which would, for the first time, reveal the military regime’s new tough stance against anti-regime actors challenging the government’s claim for absolute domination. According to eyewitness reports, the police arrived with eight army jeeps and land-rovers, stormed the RUSU building and arrested members of the RUSU, including the president. Students who fled the scene are said to have spread the news about the events. As a consequence, hundreds of students came out of their hostels and started to fight against the police. The military regime send in even more police cars and started to spray tear gas amongst the students. The students, on the other hand, threw stones and lit fireworks whilst shouting offensive slogans targeted against General Ne Win. The events followed a general pattern persistent since the first student protests emerged in colonial Burma. As during past incidents of student demonstrations, the protests first centred around genuine student issues—the new stricter hostel regulations. The student leaders, then, utilized the existing momentum and transformed the dynamic into a general political protest against the Ne Win government. Furthermore, some authors also report that police cars were set on fire and some policeman injured. However, in the absence of reliable sources it must remain unclear which side started the violent acts and, likewise, whether and how many students were already injured after this first clash.
The military regime, then, hinted at its willingness to meet the student protest with firmness, when some hundreds to 2,000 soldiers from No. 4 Burmese Rifles Battalion, armed with G-3 rifles, surrounded the campus and took position at around 5.30 p.m. After the students allegedly failed to comply with repeated requests of the military to disperse, Sein Lwin, who had arrived at the university only a couple of minutes ago, presented an order to shoot the students. The unarmed students were shot in only about ten to less than thirty minutes. Until today, no one exactly knows who gave the orders to open fire. However, Aung Gyi and Tin Pe were the most senior officers at that time and Sein Lwin was the field commanding officer in the university region. Later that evening, soldiers searched the student hostels and arrested further students. Official reports indicated that 15 students died and 27 were wounded. However, in Mandalay Hall alone more than 17 students died according to the official records. Reliable unofficial sources, however, speak of more than hundred dead students in the deadliest event in the history of student protests in Burma by then. Additionally, it is estimated that some 3,000 students were arrested.
Some authors put forward the argument the pronounced readiness of the government soldiers to shoot at the students can be attributed to a deeper, underlying ethnic and religious conflict. The soldiers, purportedly, were mostly members of the Chin, a predominantly Christian ethnic group located in the border region of Burma and India, and cherished little sympathy for the students in Rangoon, which had a largely urban Burmese Buddhist background.
Shortly afterward, Ne Win addressed the nation in a five-minute radio speech portraying the incident as the result of a treacherous group of communist students. He concluded his statement warning that "if these disturbances were made to challenge us, I have to declare that we will fight sword with sword and spear with spear".
Although the student protest was already dissolved the next morning, the military regime nonetheless demolished the historic RUSU building with dynamite at 6 a.m. on 8 July 1962. However, Ne Win would soon realize that this decision sustainably undermined popular support for the regime. The RUSU building was a symbol of Burmese nationalism ever since the anti-colonial nationalist struggle of the 1930s as it constituted the locus of the beginning of Burma’s strive for independence. In this respect, the building was also “closely associated with the martyred Aung San”, who is not only considered Father of the Nation of modern independent Burma but who was also a student leader in his youth himself. The act of the destruction of the symbolic RUSU building being a tangible sign of the break with this nationalist tradition, in which large parts of the Burmese elite shared national aspirations across party lines, thus, was capable of turning public opinion against the new military regime. Moreover, as some authors contend, the event also revealed that there was a new elite in power, recruited mainly from the military and disregarding this symbol of the former elite’s shared identity.
The brutal crackdown on the student protests through the military regime of General Ne Win stood in stark contrast to the largely peaceful seizure of power in March. The new rulers for the first time divulged their willingness to use massive force against their own people. In this regard, the 1962 Rangoon University protests served as a visible sign of the military regime’s tougher stance towards an open society and as a “precedent for dealing with student protests by responding with force and school closures rather than negotiations” They also marked the end of a phase of overt student activism in Burma or a long time. Instead, Burmese students would shift future political activities underground openly contesting the military regime only sporadically, especially during the U Thant funeral crisis in 1974 and the 8888 Uprising in 1988.
Undermining education as a channel for social mobility and elite recruitment
The new military regime of General Ne Win was faced with a particularly effective and expanding educational system in Burma, which was deemed one of the best in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Access to free education enabled broad sections of the Burmese society in the post-independence phase to climb the social latter. Students exhibited enormously diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds and entry into university was also increasingly granted to girls. Thus, personal advancement through education was one of the four major channels for social mobility in Burma at this time. In this regard, some authors argue, that the crackdown on the student protests must be regarded as the first of many steps of the new military regime to close this classical channel for social mobility and elite recruitment in favour of recruitment through the military. Accordingly, attendance at the military college at Maymyo became the primary avenue into elite status.
Moreover, closely linked to the military regime’s attempt to close education as a primary channel of upward social mobility and elite recruitment was the broader strategy of eliminating university students as an independent source of power which could challenge the claim to power of the government of General Ne Win. Several factors contributed to the strength of the student movement. First of all, the university campus offered the broadest democratic space within the entire Burmese society. Students had a distinct legacy of widely using this leeway to criticise several subsequent governments and to influence national politics. Secondly, this shared history had fostered a strong sense of collective student identity. And, finally, students had regularly cooperated with other actors in the Burmese society in order to increase their impact. Not only did they maintain close relations to the different political parties on the national level but they also cooperated with farmer’s and workers’ unions. Thus, they were able to significantly expand their range of influence beyond campus. Against this background, General Ne Win’s hard line during the incidents on 7–8 July 1962 can be seen as a first pronounced step towards depoliticising the universities and ending this historical line of continuity existing since the 1920s, which was characterized by university students who filled the vacuum left open by the political opposition and significantly influenced Burmese politics.
Thus, the reaction of the new military regime towards the student protests marked the beginning of an important line of continuity shaping the following decades, in which the main target of subsequent Burmese governments was control not quality education. Accordingly, and in the light of thirteen university shutdowns between 1962 and 1999 Fink contends that “the primary focus in the development of the university system has been the containment of student activism”.
Following the brutal suppression of the student protests all universities were immediately closed for four months, all students send home, and the public opinion significantly turned against the military regime, partly because the students returning to all parts of the country widely spread the news.
The new restrictive approach of the military regime in handling student demonstrations was reconfirmed only around a year later, when the Revolutionary Council in November 1963 once again arrested hundreds of students and their leaders and closed the universities after protests against the policy of the government.
Furthermore, the Ne Win government introduced comprehensive institutional reforms of tertiary education in Burma intended to place the country's universities under strict official control and to profoundly hamstring cohesive student activism. Formal student organizations operating on-campus were banned. On the one hand, the previously existing, political student organizations were dissolved. On the other hand, new non-political student associations devoted to unsuspicious areas such as sports, social life and academic subject areas were established and placed under supervision of Security and Administration Committees (SACs), which served the Revolutionary Council’s purpose to control subordinate administrative organizations. In 1964, the University Education Act further reduced the organizational capacities of Burma’s universities and their status as a focal point for anti-government protest. The government of General Ne Win had clearly recognized the danger posed by coherently organized universities and especially by students of the liberal arts. Hence, both Rangoon University and [[Mandalay University]] were divided into several autonomous institutes. In addition, an incentive system was introduced, in which—breaking with the legacy of the colonial past—high-performing students were directed towards practical subjects such as medicine and engineering, while underachieving students were guided towards the humanities and the liberal arts, which the regime considered as being rather subversive. But it also reflected the new government’s approach to focus on industrial development through an educational emphasize on science. By that time, tertiary education in Burma produced a highly educated but increasingly unemployed elite, which could have posed a further threat to the regime.
In response to the brutal suppression of the student protests in July 1962 as well as the repressive behaviour of the military regime in the time thereafter, most students tacitly accepted their new unpolitical roles assigned by the government. A small number of remaining dissident students, however, formed underground units not larger than ten persons and met within the circle of “private libraries, study groups and private teachers in order to study political developments in other countries and to learn more about resistance movements in Burma’s past”. This reaction build on another tradition established during the colonial period since the 1920s; at that time private study groups dedicated to strive for independence met in order to learn from political literature for their anti-colonial struggle. However, strict surveillance and the tough stance of the military regime in the past spread the fear amongst dissidents of being discovered. As a result, the underground units remained small and unconnected “preventing them from becoming a larger network and a potential mobilizing structure”. Instead, the students tried to uphold the reminiscence of open collective student activism by circulating underground pamphlets, while they were waiting for suitable political opportunity structures to open for renewed student mass mobilization. Other student activists, however, “joined the armed Communist Party in the jungle” and “participat[ed] in the guerrilla warfare conducted by rebel political and ethnic groups against the government”.
Scholars have stressed the importance of the 1962 Rangoon University protests as a formative event and focal point for later student activism against military rule in Burma. As a visible sign of the symbolic importance of the events as a reference point, “many Rangoon University students wore black or participated in furtive, nighttime demonstrations around campus“ on the anniversary of the 7 July incident. General Ne Win himself was also firmly aware of the symbolic power connected with the events. This was, inter alia, reflected in his decision to release students, which were detained during the beginning of the 8888 Uprising in March and June 1988, on the 7 July anniversary. Furthermore, when Ne Win had to resign only a few weeks later as a result of the 8888 Uprising, he referred in his departure speech to the destruction of the RUSU building as “one of the key episodes” during his time in power. Moreover, Ne Win also explicitly denied any involvement in dynamiting of the Student Union building, stating that his deputy Brigadier Aung Gyi, who by that time had fallen out with Ne Win and been dismissed, had given the order without his approval and that he had to take responsibility as a "revolutionary leader" by giving the sword with sword and spear with spear speech. Aung Gyi, in turn, “claimed that he merely delivered the order given by General Ne Win to the commander of the military company which eventually detonated the explosives that destroyed the union building.” However, the conviction has gained ground among academic scholars that Ne Win in fact bears the ultimate responsibility for the destruction of the RUSU building.