Saturday, July 4, 2009

Burma's Frustrated Generation Looks Abroad

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON — Armed with a law degree from the University of East Rangoon, 22-year-old Win is clear-eyed about his job prospects: Practically speaking, there are none. For him, the future lies overseas.

Abroad there is "some hope, some opportunity. But in our country, there's no hope left," said Win, who is applying to go to Australia for further studies.

Unlike the students who hit the streets in 1988 in big demonstrations against the military government, the generation now emerging from college is focused on avoiding political activism, learning English and seeking opportunities in a world they have come to know through TV and the Internet.

Two decades ago, it was very difficult to emigrate from the country. Today it's much easier, and every day long lines of people, many of them students, form outside the government office that issues passports.

There are no solid statistics, but historian Thant Myint-U estimates the number of emigrants over the past couple decades is in the millions.

"The main way young people express their unhappiness today is to leave the country. Before there was no possibility of emigration. That is a huge change. ... For more and more young people inside, their first desire is find work abroad," said the historian, who lives in Thailand and is author of "The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma."

"We are frustrated by the lifestyle, the opportunities and the politics here. But we don't care too much about political things because we can't do anything to change the situation. So we avoid it, we try to escape it," said Win, a thin lanky youth who spends his free time playing computer games. Like most people interviewed in Burma, he chose not to give his full name for fear of angering authorities.

The government has labored long and hard to disempower a university system that once produced its strongest opponents. It was students who led the August 1988 uprising that brought tens of thousands into the streets, only to be crushed by military might.

Authorities set out to fragment the student body, moving colleges at least 15 kilometers (10 miles) out of cities and forcing students to find their own housing rather than live together on campus and find strength in numbers.

Elite Rangoon University, which nurtured independence leader Aung San and the late UN Secretary General U Thant, was closed for several years and reopened as Yangon University, the new name the generals had given to the city of Rangoon.

Many of the university's buildings are in disrepair, and only a small number of graduate and doctoral students attend classes; undergraduates are not admitted.

Aung San's daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, is Burma's modern-day symbol of the democracy struggle. She has spent 13 of the last 19 years in detention, and went on trial last month, accused of violating the terms of her house arrest.

Student activists from the '88 generation managed to make their voices heard again in 2007 in the uprising led by Buddhist monks, and last fall many of them were given prison sentences of 65 years.

Experts insist student political action has not died out, but has largely shifted to "low-risk activism" or gone underground because of the military government's repression.

There is still a "widespread dissident movement" inside the country that includes student groups, bloggers, monks and others, but their activities are much less centrally organized, said David Mathieson, a Burma researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.

There's no direct confrontation, but there are "still a lot of activities by people who are either directly trying to challenge the government or just by people who are trying to get on with their lives and do a whole range of things," he said.

Students concerned with the country's politics know better than to voice it publicly.

"I really care about politics and the future of the country but I feel I am not free to participate. Sometimes we talk politics in cafes but we have to be careful. Even walls have ears," said Wai, a 23-year-old graduate who majored in English.

Students today have much more exposure to the outside world through the Internet, television and movies, said Naing, a 40-year-old teacher at a private school in Rangoon.

"They can see more of the world than during my time. They know their country's problems. That's the big problem—everyone wants to leave," he said.

Another teacher, 48-year-old Maung, runs a private English language school and says most of his 85 students come wanting to learn enough English to function abroad. They head for neighboring Singapore and Thailand, and dream of the West, he said.

"They like America because it's so free," he said. "Even my son and daughter, they both want to go abroad if they have the chance. The future is so dark here."

Even with a college degree, most students have little hope of landing a decent-paying job if they stay in the country, said Myat, 22, a Dagon University graduate with spiky brown hair and a diamond ear stud.

The few jobs available are low-paid—$50-100 a month. International non-governmental organizations pay double or triple, but only hire top students.

Overall, the situation remains bleak, said Myat, so he too is applying to study abroad.

"When we see students in other countries, we feel envy," he said. "They can choose whatever they want to do in their life."

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