By Jon Lamb
Students in Burma have played a major role in the fight for human rights and democracy throughout the decades of turmoil that have racked Burmese politics. Students led the waves of anti-government protests which swept across Burma in 1988. These protests were ruthlessly crushed by the military, resulting in some 10,000 deaths and thousands more detained in prison.
Maung Maung Naing was a student in Rangoon during the unrest in 1988. Now resident in Australia, Naing is a representative of the All Burma Students League (India and Thailand). He is working with Burmese students and solidarity activists to build international support for the Burmese democracy movement in its efforts against the military dictatorship, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).
"I became involved in student politics in May 1988, when the nation was in a deep crisis. Students were demanding greater rights to organise and form a national student union", Naing told Green Left Weekly.
"We began to hold daily demonstrations for student rights and over time, for other demands such as human rights, economic reforms and a change of government to a multiparty democracy. The military responded with a crackdown — attacking demonstrations and shooting at students. More and more people became angry at the military's response and joined in with the demonstrations."
There had been no national student union in Burma since the military coup of 1962, when the student movement and other groups opposed to military rule under General Ne Win were violently suppressed. From 1962 to the present, only one civilian (excluding retired military personnel) has ever held a major government post.
The isolation and "Burmese path to socialism" conducted by the military through its mouthpiece, the Burmese Socialist Program Party, produced repeated shortages. The mismanagement of the economy by the military junta and its bureaucracy intensified the underdevelopment of Burma. A crisis point was reached in 1987, when the dictatorship demonetised the currency, wiping out the savings of thousands of poor Burmese.
"On August 8 , at 8 minutes past 8 in the morning, the whole nation stopped. All people — students and workers — took part in demonstrations all across Burma. The military responded with a massacre of the people.
"The military continued attacks on the people through September. Students were asking and debating how they could continue the struggle for the people. Most of the students decided to take up armed struggle against the dictatorship", Naing said.
"We [the students] divided up into two main groups. One group was to stay in Burma in the cities and the rest was to go to the border and join the ethnic minorities there in the armed struggle against the Burmese army. We had to develop a special underground network of students as well.
"The students who gathered along the border with Thailand formed the All Burma Student Democratic Front. The main purpose of ABSDF was to wage armed struggle against SLORC. SLORC immediately accused the students and pro-democracy activists as communists and a threat to the security of the country. It stepped up arrests, detention and torture of people."
The students established camps all along the Burma-Thai border and began to coordinate activities with the various ethnic groups, such as the Mon and Karen, who had been waging armed resistance against the central Burmese government for some 40 years.
"Many students have ended up in India and Thailand, especially in Bangkok. I was with the ABSDF on the border for about one-and-a half years before making my way to Bangkok in 1990.
"We set up a 'social welfare' group to test the response of the authorities and then established a more openly political one. It was called Overseas Burmese Students and then became ABSL in 1993. The All Burma Student League was formed out of ABSDF to pursue non-violent political means of struggle for our country. We wanted to build an international campaign to put pressure on the military dictatorship in Burma."
There are 21 student camps along the border engaged in guerilla struggle. They are faced with a difficult situation, particularly following the concerted military offensive by the Burmese military during the first four months of this year. Many student fighters are fatigued and weak, due to diminished food and medical supplies.
SLORC is continuing a strong presence and pressure along the border. It has stepped up harassment of ethnic minority communities and villages — women are abused and raped while the men are forcibly detained to act as porters for the Burmese army. There have also been reports of SLORC using chemical warfare against the insurgents.
"It has also been difficult for Burmese students within Thailand as well, because of the unstable political situation there and because many students are there illegally", Naing added.
The students in Thailand have staged protests against bodies such as the World Bank and ASEAN because of their dealings with SLORC. ABSL sees building a broader international campaign as vital in pushing for democratic change in Burma.
"ABSL is trying to increase international pressure through the UN and other institutions upon SLORC — such as the introduction of economic sanctions and an arms embargo. We want nations to stop doing business with SLORC because it is not the elected government, because of its continuing human rights abuses and because it isn't supported by the people ", explained Naing.
The main countries with economic links with Burma are Singapore and China, and there are large multinationals like Pepsico and BP (Australia) with investments there. BHP is also interested in developing Burma's rich oilfields.
"ABSL is looking for more support from NGOs and solidarity groups. Also we are lobbying the Australian government not to ignore the human rights abuses in Burma. Officially the Australian government condemns SLORC, but 'unofficially' it supports business links such as the visit of former prime minister Bob Hawke.
"ABSL believes that we must push for a cease-fire and peace talks. Burma has been in civil war for more than 40 years. This has left so many people homeless, without education and without hope. We need to push for a political solution and dialogue to solve the ethnic tensions and lack of democracy. We are organising the people to take part in this process.
"Aung San Suu Kyi must also be released. She has been held under arrest for six years. She must be released and involved in any dialogue for peace and democracy."
[Maung Maung Naing will be attending the Resistance national conference in Melbourne, July 8-10 (see ad, page 7). Messages of support or financial assistance for ABSL can be sent to 8/141 Cross Rd, Westbourne Park SA 5041. Ph:(08)357 8706, fax:(08)271 9324.]