Khin Zaw Win shares enthusiasm about growing public sentiment for peace.
A public meeting was held recently at a café on Yangon University campus. The original venue had been Judson Hall just outside the campus but it suddenly became unavailable and the switch had to be made with just hours to spare. About two hundred people attended, some from other towns, and it was a good cross-section. A few weeks ago, a statement calling for an end to the fighting had been issued on Independence Day, signed by sixty-two organizations some of which may be regarded as radical or far left.
Students facilitated the meeting and attendees were invited to express their views in batches of five. The general direction for the immediate period is towards a march to a public square. What interested me most were my recollections, comparisons and possible paths forward. First, the place – U Chit Teashop, which is an institution in itself and everyone knows it. It must have existed for half a century and I’m glad to see that it has come up in the world and is keeping up with the times. It’s just beside Mandalay Hall, in front of which so much tumultuous history has taken place. Student protesters had been shot there on 7th July 1962. Across the road is the empty site of the Rangoon University Students’ Union, which had been dynamited the following day. It was also the place where a spontaneous anti-government movement had tried to entomb the remains of U Thant in December 1974, and had gotten smashed. So without intending to, Wednesday’s meeting took place on hallowed ground. Successive governments have had good reason to fear occurrences on Yangon University campus. That was why the previous regime moved universities wholesale to out-of-town locations.
There’s a lot of public discontent with the war that’s dragging on, and other things that the present government is unable or unwilling to handle. A big protest march is scheduled for 4th February but its impact remains to be seen. On its side, the military will continue its offensive until certain key objectives are achieved. The two things will go side by side.
Going further, the young people leading the meeting might not have been born yet in 1988. I was there in that same campus in March 1988 and the student speakers had had to mask their faces with handkerchiefs. (I managed to get out just before the gates were closed and the campus encircled by troops). It’s a much freer atmosphere now. In the round of self-introductions, many referred to themselves as activists, and there was even a retired military officer who openly said so. Ethnic nationalities were represented as well. Political parties were not visible (and the disconnect between political parties and youth organizations in Myanmar seems to be growing, at least in relation to mainstream parties).
I reiterate that I am glad and comfortable with the progress of the democratic revival, my primary concern being the ethnic conflicts. I admit that what I saw was the most ardent vanguard and that such meetings should take place all over the country. (On a lighter note, one of the student facilitators announced that the meeting was on a self-catering basis, large donations would not be accepted, and everyone who attended would have to pay K. 1000 each).
I don’t want to read too much into it at present but couldn’t help feeling that these are people who are going to be deeply involved in 2020 – but not with the party in power.
Khin Zaw Win is currently the Director of the Tampadipa Institute, working on policy advocacy and capacity building since 2006. His current engagement includes communal issues, nationalism and international relations. He is also an honorary senior research fellow at the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies. He served under the Department of Health, Myanmar, and the Ministry of Health, Sabah, Malaysia and did the Masters in Public Policy programme at the National University of Singapore. He has held a fellowship with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and was also a UK FCO Chevening Fellow at the University of Birmingham. He was also a prisoner of conscience in Myanmar for “seditious writings” and human rights work from 1994 – 2005.