“I came here because of my respect for this university. It was here at this school where opposition to colonial rule first took hold. It was here that Aung San edited a magazine before leading an independence movement. It was here that U Thant learned the ways of the world before guiding it at the United Nations.
Here students demanded their basic human rights. The future of this country will be determined by the education of its youth.”
Barack Obama, US-President
The university was founded in 1920 as Rangoon University, and from the very start it established itself as the epicentre of strikes against the foreign colonial administration and, years later, against the homegrown military government.
Yangon University war recently thrust onto the international stage when it was chosen as the site where president Barack Obama delvered his keynote speech during his visitti to Myanmar in November 2012.
In the middle fot the 20th century the university was among the most impressive institutions of higher learning in all of Asia, but years of neglect at the hands of an military government ensured the school’s fall from its lofty heights into the dark pits of irrelevance. But the country finds itself trudging along a path towards building a new government that the people of the country hope will someday resemble genuine democracy, and forces are working to restore the university to its former glory. These forces also want to rebuild the Student Union building – dynamited in 1962 by the military in response to a student protest.
In 1920 the act has been established that all students must room and board at the school, putting the university beyond the reach of poor people because of the high living expenses.
As a result to the act young people who intended to become students at Rangoon University protested against it, two days before the opening of the school. The strike movement spread across the nation. Although it failed to convince administrators to change the university act, it set an early precedent for student protests in Burma.
The 1920s and 1930s also saw the enrolment of many students who would later help shape the history of Myanmar. Independence leader Aung San began studying at the university in 1933. Finally, in the years before the outbreak of World War II, the school was considered the best in Southeast Asia. Among other attributes, Rangoon University could also boast one of the best libraries in the region, with a huge collection of Myanmar and English language books, old Myanmar manuscripts and periodicals dating back to the 16th century. In the pre-war years, the university was also attended by many students from Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Many of them became leading figures in academics, politics and economics and graduates from the school had no trouble continuing their studies abroad.
The good times came to an end in 1962, when U Ne Win seized control of Myanmar in a military coup. It was the beginning of a relentless 50-year downward spiral from which Myanmar will take decades to recover. U Ne Win made it clear from the very beginning of his reign of terror how little he cared for education – or for human rights – when he responded to a campus protest by ordering that the Student Union building be dynamited on July 8, 1962.
The university was further undermined in 1964 when key departments were put under government control, and faculties were transferred to state-run institutions. In 1988 the government closed the campus in response to a popular call by the people for the military to cede power to a democratically elected government.
The result is well known: The armed forces massacred its own citizens in the streets of Yangon. The university was closed from 1988 to 1991. Since its reopening Yangon University has accepted small numbers of master’s and doctorate students. Until recently, undergraduates must study at remote campuses.
Yangon University’s campus remains a virtual graveyard when compared with its pre-junta glory days. It remains to be seen whether the school will regain the status once held, and, if so, how long it will take to repair the damage once done by a military government that, over the course of decades, demolished the educational hopes and dreams of generations of people in Myanmar.
“The education system in particular has never been recovered from the lingering slump that started at that time.”
U Thaw Kaung, retired university librarian