August 20, 2016

Students and Student Unions

(Opinions expressed here are those of the author.)

I agree that there should be Student Unions at all levels of educational institutions, namely – basic, vocational, college, and the university levels. Students should be allowed to participate freely in their own affairs. It is an international practice, in democratic countries, to allow student unions to flourish. During my university days, the Student Unions were officially formed under the aegis of the university authorities. Elections to choose executive committee (EC) members of the Union were held yearly. The election nights were highlights of our student days. Students, both hostel students and day scholars alike, gathered at the place where the votes were being counted in full view of all the students. Everyone present were in festive moods, some singing and dancing as the emerging votes were being read out aloud. Annual membership fee of three Kyats per annum was officially collected from every student, along with other fees such as tuition, hostel, messing and other miscellaneous fees on registration for the new academic year. These membership fees were handed over to the Student Union to be used for the welfare and benefit of the students.
In my first year, in 1953, at the Mandalay University College (MUC), as it was called in those days, I was very pleased and proud to be issued a Student Union membership card. We looked up to the senior students, who were EC members of the Student Union and had much faith and respect for them as our student leaders. They were my idols and hoped to become like them one day. In my view they were really dignified in their Pinni Taikpons or Burmese formal jackets, made of handspun yarns and handwoven local clothsa signature of a politician throughout our history up to this day. The sounds of their wooden clogs or Khonphanuts, which were in vogue at MUC, were like music to my ears. All these contributed to my faith and respect for them, as I was a naive sixteenyear old freshman, for whom everything about the university was new and fascinating.
I was attending classes regularly until the month of October that year, when a turning point in my life emerged. That year the office of the Chancellor of Rangoon University (RU), under whose jurisdiction our MUC was, issued an order reducing the October or Thadingyut holidays from the usual one month to a mere fifteen days. Most of the students, especially those of us who stayed at the hostels were not at all pleased. On the day, we learned the bad news, many hostel students took to the streets of the campus shouting all sorts of dissatisfactions that we fancy, well into the night. Later, I realized that activity of ours did not amount to a demonstration, but just unruly students venting their angers and frustrations, fedup with the hostellife and were homesick.
That activity, started by the hostel students was continued the next day, drawing more students from the day scholars. The Student Union leaders stepped in, to lead and control the unruly mob. They led a more organized demonstration onto the streets of the city on commandeered motor buses. Looking back to that incident now, I noticed the way they guided the innocent students’ angers in the direction they wanted, to achieve their own goals. Later, I learned from experience that it was a communist tactic, the art of mob agitation. It did not benefit the students, but was just a diversion to ease pressure on the rebels, especially the Burma Communist Party (BCP), by keeping the government occupied on the home front.
Here I would like to write how much I contributed to that activity. As I had connections with a motor bus association, I accompanied a student leader there and requested the secretary of that association to commandeer twenty buses that were not on roster to operate that day, at reduced rates for the students’ cause. I assured him, I would see to it personally that they get their dues immediately. (However, those poor people did not get the twentyfive kyats, the hiring fee for each bus, at all because the Union leaders did not keep their promises. I learned a bitter lesson, started to doubt our student leaders’ integrity and decided not to give any voluntary service to the Union in future.)
We went to downtown areas shouting slogans coined by the union leaders. One such slogan was “Kyaw Nyein, Tha Hla get out, get out”. Most of the demonstrators, including myself, did not know for sure, who these two men were and how they were involved in this matter. Anyhow, we were shouting agitatedly at the top of our voices. When we returned our throats were sore from shouting. It was the very first taste of student politics for me.
After that first experience, I stayed away from the student politics and the Union people as much as possible. However, interest in my studies started to wane, after being absent from classes for a long duration during the demonstrations. I hung out at the tea shops on the campus and idled away my precious time after the “1953 October Student Uprising”. For the first time in my life, I failed the examinations that year, both in March and June. In those days we had two chances to pass the examinations, one in March and a supplementary in June. The next year was worse, I had made many friends by then, who were just like me, idling and never attending classes. I did not sit for the exams that year to avoid the 3 Fs penalty, which deprived a student who failed three times consecutively, the privilege of remaining as an internal student.
In my third academic year, I transferred to Rangoon (Yangon) University (RU), to distance myself from my friends at MUC, who were bad influences for me. During the two academic years at RU, I passed my exams every year. For the fifth academic year, I returned to MUC, as my Alma Meta was about to gain the fullfledged university status that year. That was to become the real turning point of my life. Although I shunned the Union and the student politics, I was drawn back into it once again. This time it was not to oppose the authorities, but to oppose the incumbent student organization itself. The student leaders had been abusing the good offices of the Student Union, misappropriating the funds and misleading the unsuspecting students.
In 1957, the student organization that was at the helms of the Union split into two factions. I learned from a very close friend, who walked out from the EC membership to form a new faction, that the split was dictated by the fact that the BCP had split, in the jungles. The root cause was the difference of opinions between the two top rebel leaders, Thakhin Than Tun and Thakhin Soe. The latter called his group, the Red Flag Communist Party, while the other kept the old name BCP, but was also known as the White Flag Communist Party. I started to realize that we were being manipulated by the communists through the Union all along, unknowingly.
It was outrageous, so we gathered likeminded students, most were staunch supporters or sympathizers and including the Vice President of the Union, to discuss the course of action to be taken to oppose the communist infiltration into the student body. After a long and heated discussion, the decision was to part with the incumbent student organization and form an independent and neutral one. Thus, a new student organization was born. Its main objective was to expose the true image of the students who were at the helms of the Union and to oust them by competing them in the annual Elections. The name of our organization was “Kyaungthar In Ahh” (Student Strength). Our slogan: “Student strength for the students” became popular. We remained independent from any political or government organizations. There were some attempts to handle and control our organization, but we resisted and never became anybody’s puppets. During those days, there were three existing student groups apart from ours’, of which the two splintered groups were handled, effectively, by the communists and the other one was backed by the socialists in the AFPFL government.
In the beginning, we enjoyed overwhelming support from the students. All our campaign rallies were jampacked, as the students were looking forward to a change. Although we did not take any post nor were nominated to run in the election, a friend of mine and I participated actively to promote our newly formed organization. We did all the ground works, such as writing wall posters, sticking posters, production of pamphlets for the campaign and fundraising. In those days, it was not an easy job to get the pamphlets ready for distribution every alternate day. However, we managed to do that by handprinting painstakingly, one page at a time, using handstenciled wax papers.
During those days, some hardliners among the communist students from MUC, went underground and joined the ranks of the BCP insurgents. However, they were not welcome in the jungles. Being from the educated class and came from well to do families, they were not accepted as trustworthy comrades and were eventually executed, accusing them to be government spies. They were ruthlessly beaten to death with war yin dokes, bamboo sticks. Another communist student who escaped alive told us, how a group of insurgents among whom he was one, were met at a certain prominent hotel in downtown Mandalay by some Student Union leaders, who supplied them with medicines and uniforms. Where else could the money to purchase those supplies come from, other than from the Union fees we had contributed? A friend of mine, who split away from the main communistoriented student group, also tried to join the Red Flag insurgents while he was on the run to escape arrest by the authorities in 1957. He later told me that he was detained by the insurgents since his arrival at their camp and they did not believe his story and accused him of being a government spy. Fortunately, he escaped from the insurgents, together with an army officer who also was in captivity.
In conclusion, I would like to advise the new generation students, not to confuse student affairs with politics. They should also be cautious not to be misled or misguided by any individual or organization. Lastly, I would like to suggest, if they want to succeed academically, students should stay away from any form of politics. Student Unions must be for the students’ affairs and should not get involved in matters that have nothing to do with them. My personal advice to the new generation students is “Do not let yourselves be used, or in other words, do not be anybody’s puppets”. This advice is based on my hard learned lessons. There were many, like me, who had to drop out without graduating after being actively involved in politics; misled, manipulated and wrongly indoctrinated to believe we were working for the students’ cause.


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