Ninety-nine years ago this December, a group of students at the University of Yangon (then Rangoon) decided they were fed up.
The university had only recently been opened by the British colonial authorities as the first modern, secular university in Myanmar; up until that point, aspiring Burmese students had been forced to seek higher education in Calcutta or London.
But now there was a sparkling new campus situated well away from the city centre, between Victoria (Inya) Lake and Prome (Pyay) Road (a deliberate move on the government’s part so as to make student protests easier to control).
Many Burmese students, however, were unhappy with the situation. They argued that the University was elitist (modelled on Oxford), too expensive for local people to attend, and only likely to perpetuate British colonial rule.
A majority decided to go on strike. The strikers met at the Shwedagon Pagoda and soon they had founded an alternative system of National Schools that emphasized Burmese culture and language (one of these was Myoma National High School now BEHS 2 Dagon).
From that day onward (later commemorated as National Day in Myanmar, December 9th), Yangon University would gain a reputation as a hot-bed of political activism and anti-government dissent.
In the 1920s, the University Student’s Union was the training ground for Myanmar’s future nationalist politicians – the Thakins – who reappropriated the colonial form of address for Europeans, Thakin or “master”, for their own revolutionary ends.
The University at that time also happened to be amongst the best in Asia. In the 1930s, it was home to great professors of archaeology, linguistics, and economics such as G.H. Luce, Pe Maung Tin and J.S. Furnivall.
Over the past 100 years it has played alma mater to some of Myanmar’s most famous politicians, artists, and intellectuals such as the independence leader Aung San, dictator Ne Win, writer and journalist Khin Myo Chit, the poet Min Thu Wun, and state councillor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
One particularly symbolic image has been that of the University’s Convocation Hall, built in 1927 and deliberately left unpainted in recent years (some say by military order out of the fears that the day it is repainted Myanmar will become a democracy).
The University has loomed large in Myanmar culture – in the novels of Inya Moe Moe and as the subject of songs such as Htoo Ein Thin’s Blue Moon’s Shadow Over Judson Chapel.
Moreover, it has borne witness to some of the great events of 20th century Myanmar history.
It was here, after three years of fierce fighting, that the Japanese General Heitaro Kimura officially surrendered to the Allied Forces on October 24, 1945.
This was a hopeful moment, but, later on, the University campus would serve as the backdrop for some of Myanmar’s darkest political dramas.
On July 7th, 1962, following General Ne Win’s military coup, troops stormed the campus to disperse a peaceful student protest.
“The female student inhabitants of Inya Hall dormitory hung their htameins over the entrance, daring the soldiers to enter and risk the bad luck of crossing under a woman’s sarong. Ultimately, the soldiers killed scores of students on the campus.”
The next morning, the Student’s Union Building was dynamited with students still cowering inside.
After that, everything changed. The University was put under direct government control and the language of instruction was changed from English to Burmese – which might have been a praise-worthy move had not education been significantly de-funded at the same time.
What was once perhaps the best university in all of Asia was over time reduced to the bottom of the world rankings.
In 1974, when the former Secretary General of the U.N. U Thant’s body arrived in Yangon, the government sought to bury him quietly in Kyanndaw Cemetery. But a group of student activists from the University had other plans.
They snatched the coffin, enshrining the body in front of Convocation Hall and insisting on giving Thant the state funeral they thought he deserved.
Eventually, at the urging of the family, they gave the body back, but then another group of students snatched the coffin for a second time and entombed it on the site of the former Student’s Union Building – which by this point had become a symbol of resistance to the government.
The army cracked down, driving the students out of the campus, seizing the body, and entombing it where it now lies at the Kandawmin Mausolea.
The University campus would see protests again during the 1988 Uprisings, when hundreds of protesting students were either shot or drowned by troops in nearby Inya Lake.
The University was closed down for a time in the ‘90s and students dispersed to other colleges around Yangon to discourage demonstrations. By the millennium there was not a square inch of Yangon University which had not seen bloodshed at some time or another.
But in 2012, spirits were high once again as then-President of the United States, Barack Obama, came to speak. In his speech, he cited the legacies of alumni Aung San and U Thant, eulogizing the University as a place where “scholarship thrived during the last century and students demanded their basic human rights.”
In 2013, the campus reopened once again to its first undergraduate class in years, and it has since climbed in the international rankings.
A new Student’s Union is up and running, protesting injustice as its predecessor did (the problems persist: in recent years, many minority ethnic students have been unable to attend Yangon University due to the requirement that students hold national I.D. cards).
But, on the occasion of the school’s centenary, it is instructive to look back at history and reflect, while wondering what the next 100 years will bring.
(Keep an eye out as Yangon University will be holding a number of events to celebrate throughout the upcoming academic year).