The re-opening of universities in Burma is a ploy to counter criticism about the military's human rights record, Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi said last week.
Burma's universities and colleges have been closed sporadically since 1988 anti-junta riots in which thousands of students were killed. Universities were targeted as hotbeds of resistance and students were obliged to sign documents vowing not to get involved in politics.
The junta has re-opened campuses but those attached to Rangoon universities have been shifted to paddy fields, some alongside military bases, said Suu Kyi. Many students cannot afford the bus fare there, while others are studying for just three months a year with few textbooks.
In a video-taped message smuggled out of the country, Suu Kyi said the highly publicised re-openings were a sham. "It is a mere surface job to make people feel that there are improvements," she said.
She met a team of 14 foreign activists for an education conference at her National League for Democracy headquarters. NLD members told the activists that the figure of 60,000 students the junta claimed to be studying is more like 25,000. Some students are so hungry to learn that they attend underground lectures. Their teachers risk being imprisoned for up to 50 years.
Team member Graham Bailey of the South African Free Burma Campaign said:
"As in the apartheid days of South Africa, this regime is using education as a political tool."
The military government has accused Suu Kyi of politicising the re-openings rather than supporting them.