Members of the Peacock Generation activist troupe, some of whom are wearing the uniforms of People's Defence Force fighters, wave student union flags during a traditional Thangyat performance in Kayin State in April last year. (AFP)

Students of war: Myanmar’s potent but fractured student movement takes up arms

While students led previous uprisings against military rule, they have joined the ranks of today’s resistance war in a more supporting role, as members of an array of ideologically diverse groups – including a resurgent communist army.


“Everyone here today must understand the debt we owe to our ethnic minorities,” Ko Taya shouted until his soft voice was drowned out by the crowd. 

“For years they’ve been tortured by the Myanmar military, but you seemed not to care. Now, when the military is brutally killing its own Bamar people, it’s only those ethnic armed groups who can help liberate us. Never forget that!”

Ko Taya’s audience in Sagaing Region’s Wetlet Township were from the Bamar majority group, but that didn’t stop hundreds from cheering in support of his message.

The 20-year-old maths student was born in rural Monywa Township and was nicknamed the “Anyar Gandhi”, or “Gandhi of the Dry Zone”, by his Monywa University friends because his slight stature and round glasses made him resemble the iconic Indian advocate of nonviolent resistance.

But by the time Frontier saw him deliver the speech in February last year, Ko Taya had broken with Gandhi and was addressing the crowd as a member of the People’s Liberation Army, heirs to the armed wing of the long-dormant Communist Party of Burma. 

Since the February 2021 military coup, thousands of Myanmar’s students have either joined Ko Taya on the frontlines of the revolutionary war against the military, or become underground teachers, medics and strike organisers. 

Before the coup, radical student activists had criticised both the military and the National League for Democracy government for waging war against and abusing the rights of marginalised ethnic groups. This earlier solidarity has helped them secure sanctuary, training and other crucial forms of support from ethnic armed groups in establishing new resistance cells. However, the need for such support shows that while students were central to earlier political movements, from the British colonial era to the 1988 uprising, they are now supporting players in a conflict whose battles are taking place far from their campus gates, in areas where rural communities and ethnic armies are holding the line.

Ko Taya was eager to pay tribute to the latter groups in his speech last year in Wetlet, but his membership of a fringe communist army reveals something else about students’ role in the resistance. A pre-coup history of splits and ideological discord has resulted today in students belonging to a diverse array of resistance groups, often with clashing visions for Myanmar’s future and attitudes towards the parallel National Unity Government. But an ideal of ideological unity is at odds with a student culture of fierce debate and competition, and some leading figures from the student movement say that alliances between, rather than within, social classes matter more to the success of the revolution. 

Bo Aung Kyaw, a hero of Myanmar’s student movement who was killed on December 20, 1938 by mounted officers of the British Indian Imperial Police during a protest in Yangon, then called Rangoon. (Supplied)

‘A mountain of bones’

“If the freedom of our motherland is to be built upon a mountain of bones, the bones of our students will make up its foundation,” Ko Hla Shwe famously shouted during the 1938 funeral for his Rangoon University Student Union comrade Bo Aung Kyaw. He was beaten to death by imperial police during a protest, becoming the first student leader to die during the struggle for independence from Britain.

The repression of activist students continued under successive military dictatorships in independent Burma. Soon after seizing power in 1962, General Ne Win abolished student unions and ordered the dynamiting of the RUSU building after his soldiers bloodily suppressed a campus protest. In 1974, he again cracked down on students when they seized the body of former United Nations secretary-general U Thant to give him an impromptu funeral, after the regime refused to perform a state funeral.

Students kick-started the 1988 uprising against military rule and when that was also brutally suppressed, students from Yangon and other cities left for the mountainous borders with Thailand and China, where they formed the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front. The armed group never saw the same level of success as today’s People’s Defence Forces but remains active.

Despite playing a prominent role in 1988, students were divided into factions, the foremost of which was the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. The federation, known by the Burmese acronym Ba Ka Tha, had roots in the colonial era and was led by prominent activist Min Ko Naing. Following the uprising, he and other leaders were arrested and given long prison sentences. The organisation consequently went underground, emerging to help organise student protests in 1996 and 2007, when Buddhist monks also took to the streets in what the media dubbed the Saffron Revolution.

Political reforms launched by the quasi-civilian administration of President U Thein Sein in 2011 expanded freedoms on campus. Some of the activists involved in the 2007 protests took advantage of this freer environment by establishing a parallel student federation, with more emphasis placed on individual university-based unions. This was in contrast to the ABFSU, whose sub-chapters are geographic rather than campus-based, and whose membership includes many former or non-students.

The new group, called the Confederation of University Student Unions but better known by the Burmese acronym Ta Ka Tha, was named after an earlier union banned by Ne Win. It included a commitment to democracy among its founding principles but was less radical than the ABFSU, many of whose members identify as communists. In the years following 2011, the CUSU was more focused on educational reform and student affairs than the grassroots issues, such as land grabs and labour exploitation, favoured by their rival.

Despite their differences, both groups participated in a march from Mandalay to Yangon in early 2015 to protest a new National Education Law that they said restricted academic freedom. The march of several hundred people ended short of Yangon in the Bago Region town of Letpadan in a violent police crackdown, resulting in dozens of injuries and more than a hundred arrests.

But even while cooperating on the march, disputes between the groups were common, a member of a CUSU-affiliated student union told Frontier on condition of anonymity, and their differences widened after the NLD government took power in 2016. While members of the CUSU took part in dialogue with the government about education reform, the ABFSU scorned these efforts and was sharply critical of the NLD administration’s alleged complicity in military campaigns in the ethnic states, as well as its failure to better the lives of dispossessed rural communities and members of the working class.

Several senior ABFSU members were jailed for their activism. This contributed to internal rifts, said U Kyaw Ko Ko, who stepped down as chair of the group in 2016. “When pressure from the enemy is too great, it becomes difficult to work as a team. If one member is caught, the others have to run. It’s not possible to have regular meetings,” he told Frontier, adding that “members became distanced from each other and inconsistent in their ideas.”

Matters came to head when, at the ABFSU’s eighth congress in 2019, it split into two factions over a policy regarding alignment with international student movements, although the disagreement seemed at least partially rooted in personal rivalries.

In the same year, against this unruly backdrop, Ko Taya joined the organisation as a 17-year-old student at Monywa University. When the military launched its coup two years later, he participated in the mass protests.

Students and recent graduates were key organisers of the demonstrations that spread across Myanmar. A group of graduates called the University Student Alumni Force claim to have initiated the nightly pots and pans protests, where, in the weeks following the coup, members of households across the country would bang kitchen items at 8pm – a conscious revival of an old ritual to drive out evil spirits from a village.

And in a sign of how bold opposition to the junta spanned the different student factions, regardless of their pre-coup politics, several CUSU leaders were protest ringleaders, such as Ko Wai Moe Naing in Monywa, while ABFSU activists held sway elsewhere.

When soldiers fired indiscriminately at unarmed demonstrators, Ko Taya followed many of his university peers by deciding to leave his family and train under an ethnic armed group. 

But Myanmar’s student body has paid a heavy price for resisting the junta. ABFSU officials estimate that at least 200 students, including 11 of their own members, were killed by the junta’s security forces between February 2021 and December last year. The number includes both civilians and resistance fighters but may be an undercount: the NUG’s Ministry of Women, Youth and Children Affairs says that, since the coup, the military and its proxies have killed more than a thousand people between the ages of 16 and 30, many of whom would have been at school or university at the time of the military takeover.

People close to the victims told Frontier that the same words Hla Swe cried out for his friend Bo Aung Kyaw in 1938 could be heard repeated at their funerals.

Members of the Peacock Generation activist troupe take part in a traditional Thangyat performance in Kayin State. The troupe staged a jungle tour in April last year to rally resistance fighters. (AFP)

Ethnic armies step in

Student fighters that spoke to Frontier said their history of championing minority groups’ struggles meant that ethnic armed groups readily offered them training after the coup, enabling them to form their own resistance armies. Those offering support have included the Karen National Union and members of the Northern Alliance, which consists of the Arakan Army, Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

In 2021, the Student Armed Force was formed in Rakhine State with the quiet support of the AA by students including Ko Min Han Htet, a former political prisoner and president of the CUSU-affiliated Dagon University Student Union in Yangon. Min Han Htet told Frontier that although he left the group in December to focus on nonviolent activism, the SAF remains active, mostly in the Dry Zone. Spokesperson Ko Min Latt Okkar said it launched attacks in Magway Region in January. 

The AA has also supported the People’s Revolution Alliance, founded by student union members in Magway in partnership with other activists. On November 1 last year, the PRA submitted to the NUG’s chain of command.

Ko Naung Thurein, head of the PRA’s political department and vice president of Magway University Student Union, said the group was formed soon after the coup “for two primary reasons. First, to protect Magway Region, and second, to support those in the Civil Disobedience Movement,” referring to a general strike aimed at crippling the junta’s ability to govern.

“Later, when we saw momentum move towards the armed struggle, we asked EROs [ethnic revolutionary organisations] for help in forging a strong armed force. The AA was the most welcoming,” he said.

“They asked me one question: ‘How do you view our Arakan Dream?’ To which I replied, ‘I just want freedom and unity for all ethnic people and will not fight for one group.’ After that, they gave us the support we requested, and promised not to influence our movement, politically or militarily,” he said, without specifying what support his group received.

Like the SAF, the 96 Soldiers PDF began life in an ethnic state before infiltrating Myanmar’s central Dry Zone. Late last year, the group was reported to be active in Sagaing Region.

The group was founded in KNU territory by Yangon-based students including Ko Zayar Lwin, who was released in April 2021 after two years in prison for satirising the military in a traditional theatrical performance known as thangyat. He served time alongside fellow members of the Dagon University Student Union who had performed with him in the Peacock Generation thangyat troupe.

Ko Harry, a spokesperson for the People’s Revolution Front, another student-led resistance group operating in Sagaing and Magway, told Frontier that students have also taken on civilian roles in the resistance movement. “Because most of our comrades are from educational backgrounds, we’ve been able to support [parallel education efforts]. We also help out with healthcare and correspond with the NUG to help guarantee that a strong administration survives in areas affected by war,” he said.

He openly acknowledged that, in its military efforts, the PRF was “supported by the Northern Alliance”. Other student groups have also reported receiving training from the Chin National Front, Karenni National Progressive Party and ABSDF.

Aside from the more visible student-led armies, several underground guerrilla groups have received training from ethnic armed groups. These include the Ye Kaung Guerrilla and People’s Liberation Student Force, which are both also active in the Dry Zone.

The reconstituted People’s Liberation Army has sworn allegiance to the Communist Party of Burma, but says it will work with all resistance groups to overthrow the military regime. (Facebook | People’s Liberation Army – PLA)

Red dawn

Some of the groups that spoke to Frontier said they were loyal to the NUG, while others rejected its authority. However, all fervently claimed to share the same goal.

“The PRF’s ambition is to eradicate the three pillars of the junta – military governance; the military’s businesses, proxies and interest groups; and the military’s bureaucracy. We hold this in common with all other student-backed armed forces,” said Ko Harry.

SAF’s Min Han Htet, however, lamented that Myanmar’s student activists were now scattered across Myanmar and between dozens of individual resistance groups, and so were unable to provide a collective voice. “There’s now no chance whatsoever of reuniting the student movement,” he said.

Moreover, any effort to unite the movement would have to contend with ideological differences that are rooted in the pre-coup era. While student-led groups share the goal of ousting the military from power, they differ profoundly in their visions for a post-Tatmadaw Myanmar.

“The PLA aims for a People’s Democratic Republic, where workers, farmers and the oppressed find equality and solidarity,” said Ko Taya, sitting alert and composed during a video call with Frontier in January this year, and wearing a soldier’s helmet emblazoned with one red star.

He says that he learned about communism after joining the ABFSU at university. The armed group he belongs to, the PLA, was formed soon after the coup in mid-March 2021 by ABFSU members declaring themselves successors to the CPB.

Although now a common resistance refrain, the idea of “attacking the three pillars” of the military originated from the CPB, whose four-decade long insurgency collapsed amid a mutiny in 1989, prompting party leaders to go into exile in China.

“Our forces absolutely obey the Communist Party [of Burma]. We believe that the junta, its proxies and its bureaucracy must fall, and the dictator’s name must be consigned to history,” PLA spokesperson Ko Hein Zin said in a December interview with the Burma VJ media outlet announcing the group’s resurrection.

Another PLA member told Frontier the group consists of communist students from across Myanmar. Although trained and armed by the KIA, it mostly operates in Sagaing – including the Naga Self-Administered Zone bordering India – and Tanintharyi Region, he said.

A political analyst familiar with the PLA, who requested anonymity for security reasons, speculated that it currently has around 1,000 fighters, a number that Frontier was unable to verify. Although differing in its beliefs from many other resistance groups, he believed the PLA would contribute to rather than divide the anti-junta struggle.

“These days, the liberal democratic ideology is very popular in the country – but it’s exciting to see the return of the communists and their armed group, and to see how they engage with other revolutionary groups,” he said. “Remember, the CPB was once the Myanmar military’s most threatening nemesis.”

Spokesperson Hein Zin also talked up the possibilities of broader collaboration. “There’s a spectrum of resistance groups, and many are very different from each other. But under the PLA’s united front policy, groups can work together on some tasks and separately on others,” he said.

Kyaw Ko Ko added that unity among students matters much less than their ability to make alliances across traditional class and geographic boundaries. He noted that compared to the unsuccessful 1988 uprising, when student unions based in major cities had a stronger role, today’s movement benefits from broader societal participation.

“I am sure that the student class on its own will not be able to overthrow Min Aung Hlaing,” he said, referring to the junta chief. “The students by themselves lack the necessary political leadership; the 1988 revolution is an example of failure.”

*Denotes use of pseudonym for security reasons.

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