Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crumbling campus site of speech

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YANGON, Myanmar -- The soldiers began to shoot students at Rangoon University at 6:30 p.m. Hla Shwe watched, cowering in a nearby building, as his friends died. "I heard the shouting," he recalled. "They shot whoever they saw."

It was July 7, 1962, the day rage at the military's recent coup boiled over and a date now seared into the memory of Hla Shwe, who is 75 years old.

"I got the idea that if they used the gun against students, why shouldn't we use guns to fight them?" he said.

When U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Hla Shwe's alma mater today, he will be treading on ground heavy with political and historical significance.

Since colonial times, the fight for change in Myanmar has begun on this leafy campus. It was a centre of the struggle for independence against Britain and served as a launching point for pro-democracy protests in 1962, 1974, 1988 and 1996. Myanmar's former military junta shut the dormitories in the 1990s fearing further unrest and forced most students to attend classes on satellite campuses on the outskirts of town.

Today, few students walk the broken pathways of what was once one of Asia's finest universities. Birdsong fills the halls of cracked buildings. For many, the school -- which was renamed University of Yangon in 1989 -- has today become a symbol of the country's ruined education system and a monument to a half century of misrule.

"Obama knows very well about the history of Yangon University, I think. This is an enemy place for the authorities," said Hla Shwe, who fought with Communist insurgents and spent 25 years as a political prisoner. "The American government is trying to show in a delicate way that they are not only working for the government but will also take care of the Burmese people."

A movement has been building within Myanmar to reclaim the university's history and restore it to its former glory. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly stressed the importance of upgrading the country's feeble school system and has been fighting in Parliament for sweeping educational reforms. U Myint, an adviser to Myanmar's reformist president, Thein Sein, in May wrote an open letter urging the government to fill the campus's empty classrooms with students, reopen the dormitories and reconstruct the Student Union building, which the junta blew up the day after Hla Shwe watched his friends get shot.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2012 A11

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