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OCTOBER 20, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 41 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Say You Want an Education
Schools have reopened — and Ne Win's wife, Ni Ni Myint, is happy
By ROGER MITTON Yangon

Something wonderful happened in Myanmar recently: The nation's universities reopened. They have been functioning normally since June after being shut down by the ruling military junta in late 1996 following student protests. Young Burmese are now thronging the campuses, chattering, flirting, riding their bicycles, taking photographs — and, yes, even studying. At the University of Yangon, Ni Ni Myint, director of the Historical Research Center, gazes across the sun-dappled lawns and tree-lined lanes of the busy campus. "I am so happy that the students are back at last," she says. "Since 1988, the universities have been open on and off and I was very sad about it. I hope they stay open now."

The decision to reopen the schools may be an acknowledgment of the importance of educating the younger generation, but it is also an indication of the junta's confidence that it is in control. The campuses have long been a hotbed for antigovernment agitations. Students were at the center of a massive popular uprising against then-strongman Ne Win in 1988 and thousands of them joined dissident Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The NLD swept the national elections in 1990, but the current regime refused to honor the results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest.

The standoff between the junta on one side and Suu Kyi and the students on the other has continued ever since. But now, with the NLD weakened by defections and detentions, and the students themselves willing to compromise, the junta may have decided that the time was right to open the university doors again.

Not that the grip has been totally relaxed. To ensure the students are kept in check, the rulers have taken elaborate precautions. They noted how other capitals — such as Seoul, with its long history of violent student protests — located their new universities far from the city center. And they observed how their ASEAN colleagues in Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore depoliticized their student bodies — notably Kuala Lumpur, whose Colleges & Universities Act effectively bans all mass political activity without official permission (rarely given). So the junta followed suit, building new campuses in the countryside and laying down stiff rules for extracurricular activities.

Some 7,000 graduate students now pursue their studies in the capital's central campus, where Ni Ni is based. The potentially more antsy undergraduates have been relocated to two far-off campuses, about an hour from Yangon. "We are not expecting any trouble," says Deputy Education Minister Myo Nyunt. "The students are quite happy to be back." One of them agrees: "I'm glad not to be working in a department store anymore. I'm happy to be back studying."

Ni Ni too is elated that she will once again be interacting with students. "My husband did not like me to get involved with students," she says. "He did not understand that I wanted to teach so much." Her husband is none other than Ne Win himself, who seized power in 1962 and ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for three decades. One of his first acts as dictator was to suppress a disturbance at the University of Yangon and shut down the campus for a year, setting a precedent for the numerous school closures in the intervening decades. Thus the reopening has a special resonance for Ni Ni, who is now estranged from her husband.

Ni Ni is currently working on a multivolume modern history of Myanmar. She remarks: "Some say: 'Oh, Ni Ni, the wife of Ne Win, she must be rewriting history.' I get very angry when they say that. It will be balanced and objective."

As for the students, they seem to have been pacified in the short run. They are not likely to be enticed into political activity if it will jeopardize their degrees. On the other hand, their minds are becoming active once again — they are mingling together, talking to one another, sharing thoughts and ideas. In a Yangon cafeteria last month, when Suu Kyi appeared on CNN news, a student quickly turned up the sound; his peers fell silent and they all listened avidly. It is not hard to see where their thoughts might lead.

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