Myanmar campuses in ‘distress’ since coup

Scholars at Risk denounces arrests and police actions on campus

February 17, 2021
Source: iStock
University of Mandalay

Tensions continue to rise on Myanmar campuses, where the military has used violence to push back against students and academics protesting against a coup earlier this month.

“The past two weeks have been distressing, especially given recent signs of positive growth within the country's higher education community,” Daniel Munier, senior advocacy officer at Scholars at Risk, told Times Higher Education. SAR, based at New York University, is a global network that tracks academic freedom.

There are growing concerns that a decade of higher education growth and development in the developing Southeast Asian country will be lost if stability and openness are not restored soon.

Mr Munier cited “immediately alarming” threats to Myanmar’s higher education community, such as “the arrests of students and scholars, the entry of troops onto campuses, and the frequent use of force against peaceful demonstrators, including one student who died after being shot in the head with a live round”.

Meanwhile, Internet shutdowns and a recent cybersecurity bill “risk long-term damage to efforts to build up the country’s university system and connect scholars and students with peers in and outside the country”, he said.

The military police have been cracking down on academics they deem sympathetic to the ousted government.  

Sean Turnell, a Macquarie University professor and advisor to jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, became the first known foreign academic to be detained on 6 February. The authorities stormed the Australian economist’s hotel room in Yangon while he was conducting an interview with the BBC.

On 11 February, soldiers in seven military vehicles held staff at Meikhtila University at gunpoint while demanding access to the quarters of Aung Kyaw Min, a mathematics professor.  “They took him away so fast that his wife and son didn’t even realize it,” a witness told Radio Free Asia. 

The next day, the police opened fire at Mawlamyine University, according to Human Rights Watch.

They also raided the home of Khin Maung Lwin, rector of the Mandalay University of Medicine. A video posted on Facebook by his daughters showed officers retreating from their attempted arrest after being confronted by angry residents, according to The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar news source.

One student has been killed so far: 20-year-old Ma Mya Thwet Khine was shot by police while seeking shelter at a bus station on 6 February, and died in hospital several days later.

More than 100 Myanmar studies experts have signed an open letter to the government, foreign affairs ministry and Myanmar embassies around the world, condemning Professor Turnell’s arrest and calling for the release of political prisoners taken this month.

Student union leaders from 18 Myanmar universities also sent an open letter to the Chinese president, urging him not to recognise the military takeover. 

SAR called on Myanmar to release detainees and “respect universities' institutional autonomy and everyone’s right to peaceful protest”.

“Without this, scholars, students, and university leaders may continue to see a palpable risk in long-term engagements in Myanmar's higher education sector, starving it of the minds and resources that can propel it forward,” Mr Munier said.

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