Military junta fears a pupil rebellion

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Yojana Sharma reports on the continuing indefinite closure of a nation's schools

A month after the official start of term, Burma's schools are still closed following a decree by the country's military rulers.

The school year normally begins in early June after holidays from March to May. But not this year. The countrywide reopening of high schools has been postponed without explanation, leaving parents worried about their children's education. Opposition activists have warned that the future of the country - renamed Myanmar by the junta - is in jeopardy.

"How on earth is poor Burma ever going to prosper in a very competitive world if the schools are closed," said Mr U Tin Oo, vice-chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy. Aung San Sui Kyi, Nobel laureate and the league's leader, remains under house arrest.

Officials will not give a date; they simply say schools will reopen "when appropriate". The time, however, is seen as being politically sensitive. There are a number of major anniversaries looming, including that of the 1988 coup which brought the junta to power.

In the pro-democracy crackdown that followed students were killed, many were arrested and others fled into exile. The military blew up the students' union building on the Rangoon campus and the universities were closed for the next three years.

The universities were shut down again last December when hundreds of students protested against the military authorities, the first such demonstrations since the 1988 uprising. No one knows when they will reopen.

Fear of demonstrations is thought to have led to the order for schools to stay shut. Schoolchildren protested alongside their university siblings in 1988 and were said to be among the most daring, front-line participants.

Those 15 and 16-year-olds, veterans of the 1988 protests, are now university students. They are said to be behind the most recent unrest regarded by the junta as highly organised and involving several universities.

The authorities fear a new generation of militant schoolchildren joining forces with the university students, thereby creating a future generation of dissidents.

Educationists say it is a gross over-reaction to close schools. "It is really quite shocking that the military will put the country's future in jeopardy because it's afraid of some criticism," said Mr U Tin Oo.

Some believe the State Law and Order Restoration Council, as the regime is known, wants to avoid having to get even tougher with dissidents. Another crackdown would draw attention once again to its dismal human rights record when it is poised to join the Association of South East Asian Nations.

A number of Asian countries oppose its joining because of its rights record, and ASEAN itself wants to avoid any major controversy during Burma's induction this month. ASEAN is a trading block including Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.

However, some Burmese activists say that the country's joining of the powerful Asian trading block will only emphasise Burma's backwardness. They say that there should be greater stress on education rather than a willingness to shut down schools and universities because of a perceived threat of dissent.

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