Toe Toe Aung knew he would be arrested when he stood in front of Myanmar’s Rakhine State government office on 9 September with two fellow university students. They held signs reading “No Murder Army” and “No Bloody Government”, and one waved the red flag of the Arakan Student Union.
They were protesting the military’s attacks on civilians, and government policies, including prolonged internet restrictions, which many feel endanger civilians and fail to protect their rights in Toe Toe Aung’s native Rakhine State. The state, and neighbouring southern Chin State, have seen intense fighting between the Arakan Army and Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, since late 2018.
Within 10 minutes of protesting on 9 September, Toe Toe Aung and the two fellow student activists were arrested and jailed for 10 days for causing “negligent acts” during the pandemic, which is classified as a natural disaster. Those charges have since been dropped and the three have been charged with staging a protest without notifying authorities 48 hours in advance. As of late November, they are awaiting trial.
“The more they oppress us, the more we will resist and fight for justice, freedom and equality for our people,” says 20-year-old Toe Toe Aung in early November. “We are like ants fighting against elephants, but we will never give up.”
Peaceful demonstrations should not be a crime. Placing students behind bars means killing the future of our country.
Toe Toe Aung, who chairs the Sittwe University Student Union in the Rakhine State capital, is one of at least 51 activists, mostly students, who have faced charges in relation to protests against the Tatmadaw’s actions in Rakhine and the government’s handling of the conflict, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). More than 20 have been imprisoned, while the remainder await sentencing or are in hiding while facing arrest warrants, AAPP’s joint secretary Bo Kyi tells New Naratif.
On 23 November, 10 human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and AAPP, released a joint statement* calling on Myanmar authorities to immediately end criminal proceedings and release students and other activists charged for participating in recent protests. They also called for the Myanmar government to lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states and reform laws to comply with international standards for the protection of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
“Peaceful demonstrations should not be a crime. Placing students behind bars means killing the future of our country,” Bo Kyi tells New Naratif.
Despite dozens of arrests this year, some student activists are not staying quiet. Although they lack mainstream support in a country which has overwhelmingly backed Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, they are taking to the streets and speaking out for vulnerable civilians whose voices have largely been silenced by internet and media restrictions.
“As Arakanese, We Have A Lot of Grievances”
Over the past two years, an increasingly brutal civil war has engulfed Myanmar’s westernmost state, which is among the country’s poorest. Following mounting grievances under a highly centralized government dominated by the country’s Bamar ethnic majority, many Arakanese, also known as ethnic Rakhine, have turned their support toward armed rebellion. The conflict is the latest of numerous struggles for political autonomy waged in the country’s ethnic borderlands over the past seven decades.
Since December 2018, local monitoring groups have counted more than 240,000 people displaced and nearly 1,000 seriously injured or killed in Rakhine and neighboring Chin, where the conflict has spread. The Tatmadaw has applied patterns of violence long exercised in ethnic areas, including indiscriminate attacks, arson, landmines and the detention and at times torture and killing of those it alleges to be ethnic armed group supporters, according to local news reports. In April, a United Nations human rights expert said the Tatmadaw’s actions against civilians in Rakhine and Chin “may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
Historically, students in Myanmar have stood with oppressed civilians…if we are silent in the face of injustice, it is like supporting it.
In 2015, the National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won landslide elections, marking the end of a half-century of military and military-backed rule, although the government still shares power with the military according to the military-drafted constitution. While the NLD pledged upon coming to office to make peace with ethnic armed groups its “first priority”, the ensuing years have led some to question its sincerity. In January 2019, the government instructed the Tatmadaw to “crush” the Arakan Army (AA) and in March 2020, labelled the AA a terrorist organisation. The government has also restricted aid to conflict-affected areas, and in August, excluded the AA from nationwide peace talks.
Drawing attention to human rights abuses in Rakhine is particularly sensitive. The government has restricted international media access to areas affected by conflict, and, since June 2019, blocked internet services to more than 1 million people. Allegedly a counterterrorism measure, the restrictions also curb the flow of information out of the state. The government also included two Arakanese ethnic media in a group of websites which it has ordered telecoms operators to block since March, according to HRW. The government has labelled the sites as fake news sites, while local media have faced a range of charges for their reporting on the conflict.
“As Arakanese, we have a lot of grievances against the government’s actions toward our people. They really oppress us economically, politically and socially,” says Mrat Hein Twan, general secretary of the Arakan Student Union, which represents Arakanese students across 23 universities in Yangon. The 19-year-old was among nine students imprisoned for a month for holding protests in February without advance government permission.
The student demonstrators were calling on the government to lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states, hold accountable those responsible for violence against civilians in Rakhine, including for firing artillery which struck a primary school and injured 21 students in mid-February, and give international media access to conflict-affected areas in Rakhine, according to the NGO Fortify Rights.
The arrest of students protesting the Rakhine crisis comes amid a broader decline of freedom of expression since the NLD came to power, advocates say. As of March, the government had opened 251 lawsuits against those who allegedly criticized the state, according to the Yangon-based rights group Athan. Among the laws used to charge activists are one which requires protestors to provide detailed advance notice to authorities of their planned activities, or potentially face up to six months in prison, and one criminalizing speech deemed likely to cause “fear or alarm to the public” or to cause military personnel to mutiny, disregard or fail in their duty, for which those convicted may face up to two years in prison. Some protestors have also been charged for committing allegedly “negligent acts” during the coronavirus pandemic, under Myanmar’s Natural Disaster Management Law, for which they may be punished with up to three years imprisonment.
In October, two student union protestors in the city of Mandalay received sentences from multiple courts totalling seven years in prison for putting up posters accusing the Tatmadaw of being “fascist” and “murderers”.
A History of Robust Student Activism
Despite the risks, Toe Toe Aung says staying silent is not an option. “We [students] saw daily injustice, innocent civilians killed, and the torturing and arrest of our people,” he says. “Historically, students in Myanmar have stood with oppressed civilians…if we are silent in the face of injustice, it is like supporting it.”
Student unions have played a central role in the country’s activist movements since shortly after the establishment of the first university in British colonial Burma in 1920 in the city of Rangoon, today known as Yangon. The Rangoon University Student Union’s earliest leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, and the country’s first prime minister, U Nu, are considered the fathers of the country’s independence movement.
Student unions were also at the forefront of pro-democracy protests, at times with deadly results. Months after General Ne Win seized power in 1962, initiating what would become a 50-year military junta, authorities gunned down student protestors at Rangoon University, killing dozens and blowing up the student union building. Student dissidents went underground, re-emerging during the historic uprising of 1988, when they led hundreds of thousands in taking to the streets and thousands were killed and imprisoned.
I understand that reconciliation is for all people in the country to stay together peacefully…. But now, the government is trying to reconcile with the Tatmadaw more than ethnic people.
Since the NLD came to power, although many senior NLD members were once student dissidents themselves, speaking out against the government has become unpopular, with many seeing it as a personal affront to Aung San Suu Kyi. She maintains fierce loyalty among much of the public, many of whom see her as the antidote to the military rule that preceded her.
“Before 2015, people widely protested against the government when they saw injustice,” says Mrat Hein Twan of the Arakan Student Union in Yangon. “After the NLD gained power, most young people were influenced by Aung San Suu Kyi and supported the government blindly.”
The former Rangoon University Student Union, now called the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), is one national-level student group that has vocally challenged the NLD, leaving it at odds with the government and its supporters. Months after coming to office, the government promoted the creation of a new student union running parallel to the ABFSU.
In April, eight student unions, including the ABFSU, released a statement condemning the Tatmadaw’s actions in Rakhine and the government’s “unaccountability and irresponsibility” toward the conflict.
It’s possible to bring people together across ethnicity and spark a national protest movement, because there is a mass of youth and students who are standing with justice and anti-fascism, especially in ethnic areas.
“Every day in Rakhine, the Tamadaw is killing, torturing and arresting innocent civilians,” Wai Yan Phyoe Moe, ABFSU vice-chair, tells New Naratif in early November. “There is no equality or peace under the government or Tatmadaw, and they are hiding the root cause of ethnic armed revolution…. They are asking ethnic armed organisations to participate in the current peace process without giving [ethnic people] equal rights.”
In September, Wai Yan Phyoe Moe distributed leaflets and stickers with the messages “No bloody government. No murder army” and “Oppose murder and fascism and stand together with the Arakanese people.” Two days later, police conducted a night-time house raid under the guise of a COVID-19 health check. Wai Yan Phyoe Moe and fellow activist Paing Min Khant now face charges for failing to notify authorities 48 hours in advance of “holding an assembly”.
“The current government talks about reconciliation,” says 22-year-old Wai Yan Phyoe Moe. “I understand that reconciliation is for all people in the country to stay together peacefully, and to help, support each other, and listen to voices within all ethnic groups…. But now, the government is trying to reconcile with the Tatmadaw more than ethnic people.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s international image as a human rights icon shattered when the Tatmadaw committed widespread atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine State in late 2017 and she failed to condemn the violence, instead traveling to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide. Yet domestically, where many consider the Rohingya as illegal interlopers from Bangladesh despite their long history in Myanmar, thousands rallied to support her decision. Within the local activist community, scant few spoke out against the Tatmadaw’s attacks on the Rohingya or the government’s response, and those who did speak out faced harassment.
Now, student activists say few are standing with them to condemn the Tatmadaw’s violence against Arakanese civilians. “There are few people talking about human rights abuses in Rakhine State,” says 19-year-old Thor Zurn Twan, a central executive committee member of the Arakan Student Union of Rakhine State. “It’s really difficult to start a national protest movement now, because a majority of youth support the NLD.”
Yet Wai Yan Phyoe Moe of the ABFSU still hopes that more activists can come together. “It’s possible to bring people together across ethnicity and spark a national protest movement, because there is a mass of youth and students who are standing with justice and anti-fascism, especially in ethnic areas,” he says.
While within Myanmar, support for the student protestors remains limited, some Rohingya living in camps in Bangladesh have raised their voices in solidarity. In September, approximately 50 Rohingya refugees demonstrated against the arrest of Toe Toe Aung and his two fellow activists, declaring that the activists “stood up for the truth”.
As youth activist movements in Thailand and Hong Kong have swelled, student activists in Myanmar have taken note. On 16 October, the ABFSU released a statement of solidarity with demonstrators in Thailand, and when ABFSU activists were sentenced a week later, they held up a three-finger salute which has become a protest symbol during Thailand’s pro-democracy uprisings. Wai Yan Phyoe Moe says the ABFSU students used the salute as “a sign against organized or legal oppression of the people.”
He says the ABFSU had made contact with activists in other countries in years past, but the group is not currently in communication with Thai or Hong Kong activists. “Although they are also protesting against oppressive governments, the purposes, contexts and actions aren’t the same, so we didn’t make an alliance, but we support them,” he tells New Naratif.
Thor Zurn Twan says the Arakan Student Union in Rakhine had connected with student activists in Thailand and Hong Kong to share their experiences and offer suggestions, but had not made any formal alliances.
The three Arakanese activists interviewed by New Naratif said that looking forward, their student unions will take action according to the will of the Arakanese people.
Frustrations among Arakanese toward the government only worsened in the lead-up to national elections held on 8 November. Weeks before, the government-appointed election commission, citing security concerns, cancelled voting across most of Rakhine State, especially in areas with strong support for Arakanese ethnic parties—causing widespread outcry among the Arakanese public. Analysts have expressed concern that the cancellations are likely to exacerbate disillusionment with electoral politics and may contribute to intensifying fighting in the coming years. “The Arakanese youths’ political passion was stifled,” says Mrat Hein Twan of the Arakan Student Union. “It pushes people to seek self-determination or independence.”
During the elections, the NLD won even more legislative seats nationally than in 2015, taking 920, or 82 percent, of elected seats compared with 859 seats in the previous election. Although Arakanese ethnic parties beat the NLD in Rakhine, they came short of a majority of seats in the state legislature. The AA has since called for fresh voting to be held in cancelled areas, but practical obstacles remain.
Arakanese student activists tell New Naratif that in the coming year, they plan to organize a referendum among the public across the state to learn more about their political aspirations. “We have a responsibility to implement what the Arakanese people want and dream,” says Mrat Hein Twan.
“We are speaking out on behalf of our people who fear talking about human rights abuses in Rakhine,” adds Toe Toe Aung. “We will keep going as long as there is injustice in our state.”
This article was supported by a grant from ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion, a project funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
*ARTICLE 19, a signatory of the joint statement, was not involved in the commissioning, reporting or editing of this article.