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Regime outlaws student unions

BURMA. Student unions and informal student groups have been banned in Burmese schools, which have reopened after being closed for months.

Human rights groups have described the situation on campuses and in schools as volatile.

Children and youths must join the government-sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

"High-school and university students are threatened with losing their places at school if they do not join the union. In other cases only USDA membership can guarantee access to scarce teaching resources such as computers and language laboratories," a report by Human Rights Watch Asia says.

The union was set up by the military government in 1993, following three years of severe unrest involving pupils as young as 13.

USDA targets children and young people with the intention of instilling loyalty to the nation and respect for the armed forces and creating a patriotic youth force, the rights group says.

Within two years of its foundation the union had more than 2.5 million members, the majority of them high-school students and teachers. Nevertheless, high-school students demonstrated in Rangoon late last year, calling for more rights. They wanted to be able to form independent students' unions - an indication that USDA is seen as a government tool.

Riot police arrested more than 300 youths, but others have "disappeared". Rights groups do not know how many are still in detention.

The military regime continues to use of school-age children, particularly from rural and poor families, as unpaid forced labour.

Last year Human Rights Watch Asia saw pupils and their teachers in Mrauk-Oo, Arakan state, clearing the streets in preparation for a visit by a military official.

"We witnessed one young boy, aged about 12, who was kicked in the face by a soldier because he had temporarily stopped working. It happened to be a day for national exams, which meant that because all schools in Mrauk-Oo were temporarily closed, no children were able to take their final year exams, " a member of the rights group said.

Yojana Sharma

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