RANGOON — Burma’s government has threatened to expel students who participate in political activities that lead to “unrest,” with a ministry issuing the warning to enrollees at the nation’s technological colleges and institutes.
The announcement from the Ministry of Science and Technology, dated June 9, states that schools can expel students “if they are arrested and sentenced by a court for involvement in political unrest.”
“Students can be expelled if they lead, incite, support or get involved in political unrest,” it reads, adding that no distinction will be made between leaders and followers. “Those whose involvement in unrest is due to coercion will get a warning.”
Though not explicitly stated, the ministry’s announcement could be interpreted as applying to any student convicted under Section 505(b) of the Burmese penal code, which outlaws political activity carried out “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.”
Section 505 has been criticized by human rights advocates, who say it has been used to imprison political activists exercising their free speech rights.
The instruction, which applies to all institutions under the ministry’s authority, was posted first with the signature of the temporary principal at Yamethin Technological University in Mandalay Division. Contacted by The Irrawaddy, students at some other technological campuses said they had not yet received a similar communique.
The warning did not come as a surprise to Kyaw Zin Htet, a final year student at Thanlyin Technological University in Rangoon who said all students had already pledged to avoid stoking political unrest when they registered for school.
“We must define what ‘political unrest’ means though,” Kyaw Zin Htet, who serves as chairman of the Thanlyin Technological University Students’ Union, told The Irrawaddy.
The provision concerning political unrest was listed alongside several other expulsion-worthy offenses, including the use, possession, sale or distribution of drugs; sexual harassment; and destroying school property.
D Nyein Lin, a former political prisoner who was jailed four years for participating in a campus protest under Burma’s military regime, said the ministry’s threat was reminiscent of the view the country’s former ruling generals took toward students.
“Restricting students from participating in political activities is no different than the old system,” he said.
“This era of restricting students not to do this and that should no longer exist. They are unnecessarily worried about students and their unions. We think that this is to restrict and control students’ involvement in present-day politics.”
Students have long been at the forefront of Burma’s pro-democracy movement. In 1962, the late Gen. Ne Win dynamited Rangoon University’s Student Union building, which at the time had become a hotbed of political dissent against the regime. Student activists also spearheaded the popular uprising in 1988 that unseated Ne Win, though that movement was ultimately crushed by the military leaders who replaced him.
Students’ political activities remain curtailed to this day, but long-restricted student unions have again surfaced following the installation of President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government in 2011.
Today’s student unions are largely apolitical, however, insisted Kaung Htet San of the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University Students’ Union. The union’s communication officer told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the union mostly took care of extracurricular activities on campus.
“The Union represents students. We just communicate our activities and student needs to school authorities,” the final year student at the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University in Meikhtila said.
On its website, the Ministry of Science and Technology lists 41 different technological universities, colleges and institutes that fall under its authority.