Musings on student activism
Whether France in 1968 or in Burma today, no one in Western society needs to be convinced of the power that students’ movements can have. An interesting article over at my flatmate’s girlfriend’s blog has provoked some thoughts on just that.
The article in question is an interview with Ko Aung, a former student activist and political refugee here in the United Kingdom. It bears particular relevance at the moment because of the renewed role which students are taking in the massive protests against Burma’s dictatorial junta.
What has stirred my grey matter into action doesn’t extend beyond the first paragraph of the article by Tamsin (which is the name of my flatmate’s girlfriend and the author). Pretty explicitly my thoughts are directed at these few sentences:
“In Burma when the military seized power in 1962 one of their first acts was to dynamite the main Student’s Union building… For us, protesting is part of being a student. But would you dare to protest if you knew that you would end up in jail? If it led to your family and friends being persecuted? That is the situation for students in Burma.”
One assumption requires challenging. For us, in the UK, does protesting continue to be an integral part of university education? That it should be is not in question – universities should be an education in many more things than simply the subject concerned by one’s choice of degree pathway.
The most obvious case of recent protest would be top-up fees, or, less explicitly concerning students, the Iraq War or the Israeli-Lebanon conflict. In all of these cases students took to the streets. So far as top-up fees are concerned, students across the country took part in protests and some in the planning and executing the occupation of university property as part of their protest.
At Oxford, several years before my time, the then President of OUSU and her soon-to-be successor led a veritable troop of students to occupy the ancient Bodleian Library. Clearly student protest has not died – but we should remember that Oxbridge examples are the exception rather than the rule. Oxford and Cambridge tend to accumulate the most active students by virtue of being such prestigious universities.
The flip-side are places like Queen’s University, Belfast. At the height of the top up fees movement, only some three hundred students out of a population of twelve thousand could be found on a Wednesday afternoon (when no classes are scheduled) to form a march from Queen’s Students’ Union to the centre of Belfast. This was despite weeks of preparation on the part of the QUBSU executive.
The point I am meandering towards is this; most students don’t care about protests and activism. In fact, quite the reverse of the article mentioned above, the level of student activism seems proportionally linked to the level of opposition to that activism. Whether in Burma in the 1970’s or today, in Northern Ireland during the Civil Rights / Peoples’ Democracy movement or in France in 1968, the level of opposition to student activism was astonishing.
To put things into perspective so as to ensure against cheapening the struggle in Burma, student activists could be shot by the military in Burma or imprisoned virtually indefinitely.
In Northern Ireland, many members of the police, though out of uniform, banded together with loyalist mobs and armed with bricks, bats, bottles and iron bars brought their own oppression to the streets of a small portion of Western Europe. The uniformed members of the police largely stood by and watched.
In Paris something similar was faced, with de Gaulle ordering student protests quashed, leading to street battles in the Rive Gauche and across France.
Yet in Northern Ireland, the Stormont government and with it the Protestant-Unionist ascendancy was smashed, in France de Gaulle was brought tumbling down as a million workers and students declared a general strike…and in Burma a question mark still remains.
Today, the British government can shrug its shoulders and with that, the student movement has automatically lost the battle, as it has with regard to top up fees. The sweeping tide of apathy claims more victims than police oppression. The quintessentially English view of the Bobby on the street remains unyielding even in the face of evidence much to the contrary.
The police powers introduced to combat the Miners’ Strike, CND, anti-Apartheid movements and hippies ultimately culminated in the Battle of Trafalgar Square but this was not enough to have those powers removed, despite bringing down the poll tax. Students were involved in all of those causes, some to a substantial degree. The student occupation outside the naval-nuclear base at Faslane has not prevented the plans for the renewal of Trident – and the Bishops are on the side of the students in that case.
The students in Burma are struggling for something which is fundamental to all other freedoms; the right to organise, freedom of association. On this, even free speech ultimately depends. What unifying goal is there to unite students from across diverse backgrounds in the United Kingdom? Or in the rest of Western Europe?
The level of activism dictates the response; the greater the activism, the greater the response, once you factor in the societal traditions involved. For example, the leadership of democratic France is unlikely to order soldiers to open fire against protesters without extreme provocation. For this reason the opposition to student activism is so great on the part of the Burmese dictatorship.
An old adage of Orwell comes to mind; totalitarianism never had any such weapon against the masses as the so-called free press. A cage with gilt bars is still a cage.