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Musings on student activism

Burma II

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.

Categories: News from Abroad
  1. Jeff
    September 30, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    A good post, and a good question.

    I think in the U.S., part of the problem is that the lessons of the student movements in the ’60’s was that ultimately, there was no political effect. The lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 did not have the effect people thought it would. People from 18-24 have the lowest vote turnout rate of any age cohort.

    Ultimately, I think it’s as simple as the fact that there is a perception that little that students can do can affect policies that affect them. And well, I can’t blame them. When, for instance, looking at the Iraq War, we see the largest protests in history, before the war even starts, and there is no policy change, you have to wonder how much your protesting did.

    My father was a veteran of the anti-war and student movements in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, and we would often discuss whether or not the protests had any political effect, and his conclusion was that they hadn’t (although, let me add, he still thinks he should have protested). The Vietnam War stopped because the Cold Warriors realized we were loosing and nothing we could do would make us win, not because of any amount of protests or lobbying that the Anti-War movement did.

  2. September 30, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    That’s an interesting thought – that the protests didn’t have any effect in the US. It flies in the face of everything I know – or thought I knew – with regard to 60’s US politics. Didn’t the marches and anger with LBJ effectively destroy LBJ’s re-election bid?

    It brought to prominence Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky, it scuppered attempts to destroy freedom of speech on the part of the House Un-American Committee and so on and so forth.

    Even had South Vietnam held up, you don’t think the US would have been forced to pull out? Surely had Nixon not attempted Vietnamization he too would have succumbed to the same rabid antipathy as LBJ?

  3. Jeff
    September 30, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    I agree that you and I might think that the marches and anger with LBJ destroyed LBJ’s re-election bid, but I don’t know if he thought that, and to be honest, I don’t know that he couldn’t have won the nomination anyway. Johnson once told Thurgood Marshall that what would kill him in ’68 was not the war, but the South abandoning him because of his nomination to the Court of Marshall, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    While I don’t know if LBJ actually believed that, it’s an interesting argument. He might have been right though: it was the loss of the South and the White vote that might have hurt him more than anything else. He was, after all, one of many in a long-line of Southern Democrats who had maintained FDR’s uneasy alliance between racist Southerns and a pro-labor, generally more progressive Northern Democrats. The way FDR did it was by preventing civil rights and such by being a Federal issue, and leaving it to the States. LBJ broke that with the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, which was the single greatest step to break up segregation. If you look at statistics, segregation didn’t really decrease after Brown v Board in 1955, but during LBJ’s second term (1964-1968).

    LBJ knew he broke the Democratic Party, and I think there’s a good chance he thought that what’s doomed his re-election changes.

    At least the chronology of events, however, does cast doubt on that assertion, given that LBJ withdrew from the race days after the New Hampshire Primary.


    But to get back to the main point, the end result was that the American people still got a pro-war President, and in fact, one worse than LBJ. I think that’s the lesson my father and activists like him took after years of protesting: nothing in the electoral system brought us out of Vietnam, just the same, corrupt politicians who brought us in realizing that they couldn’t win.

  4. September 30, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Admittedly so, but the Vietnam War no more than any other can be considered separate and apart from the social issues du jour. In that respect, weren’t the hands of Nixon held at least a little in check? Wasn’t Congress aware of its own impending doom unless it reigned in the funding of the war effort?

  5. Jeff
    September 30, 2007 at 11:37 pm

    Yes, Nixon held his hands in check, but that’s, in part, the point.

    Nixon winning and ending up pro-war only demonstrated to many of the protesters the futility of their efforts. No matter how successful their efforts seemed like they would be (after all, if you buy the LBJ argument, that’s a big deal), the warmongers pulled a fast one, and got a wolf in sheep’s clothing elected.

    Was Congress aware of its own impending doom? Yes and no. It was acceptable doom. You gotta look at this in Cold War context: all communists are evil. All communists are all the same. If we stop here, the domino effect will begin, and a cascade of capitalist nations in Southeast Asia will fall to the specter of communism. There was no expense too high to defeat communism.

    I don’t think it was money that changed Congress’s mind, but Congress decided that they couldn’t win in Vietnam.

  6. September 30, 2007 at 11:39 pm

    You don’t think a majority of Americans being against the war had an effect on Congress’ decision to cut the funds?

  7. Jeff
    September 30, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    No, not really. Certainly some Congresspeople and Senators who voted for the Case-Church amendment did so out of principle, but I doubt a majority. But the Cooper-Church amendment three years, in 1970, failed pretty spectacularly in the House. What changed in 3 years? Not the make up of the House and Senate, which didn’t change a whole lot in the 1970 or 1972 elections (’72 saw minor gains for the Republican Party). The question becomes really, why did Democrats change their mind? I don’t think it was the protests.

    I mean, look right now. A majority of Americans are in favor of a withdraw of some degree. And Congress does…?

  8. September 30, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    So far as I can tell, Congress has been pretty noisy where withdrawal is concerned. One crank/Senator is demanding the impeaching of Bush and even Hilary has been pretty unequivocal in demanding that American troops are brought home.

    As you say, popular opinion gave Democrats a huge bat to beat Petraeus with and they used it. If there was no popular sentiment against the war, then that, as I suggesed on the FoOL blog, would have played substantially worse in the media.

  9. Jeff
    October 1, 2007 at 12:05 am

    And yet, about half the Democrats in the Senate supported a resolution condemning MoveOn.org “General Betrayus” add.

    Congress might have been noisy on withdrawal but they haven’t passed any legislation about it. For all the noise they stir up, they haven’t done anything. And given that there have been the largest protests in history over the past 5 years, it gives me pause when one asserts that protests change politicians’ minds.

    I think when we withdraw from Iraq, it won’t be a principled anti-war position, although it will be for some, but rather, an acknowledgment that the war was “mismanaged.”

  10. October 1, 2007 at 12:08 am

    Free Burma!
    International Bloggers’ Day for Burma on the 4th of October

    International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.


  11. October 1, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    I’m not sure we’re necessarily referring to the same thing Jeff – or at least we are, but on two different levels. You seem to be arguing that, because the Democrats will claim reason A as their reason for pulling out, then that reason can’t be reason B. That is what your last paragraph explicitly amounts to.

    I’m saying that it doesn’t matter why the democrats are saying they want to pull out. The can blame it on mismanagement or they can blame it on the moon being made of cheese – but the underlying reason is that millions of Americans are against the war and that being pro-war is thus losing votes.

    Given that the Democrats aren’t really offering an alternative to the Republicans and despite that they retook House and Senate, I think its pretty obvious that the sentiment of many Americans has had an impact. Certainly in regard to Lieberman within his own state party it had an effect.

    Because of the fact that at the next elections, many more Republican seats are up for vote than Democratic, I foresee further gains for the Democrats in November 2008. I also attribute this to the underlying sentiment that the war is going badly along with the side issues such as lying on the part of the government etc.

    Now, that’s not entirely the same as saying that protest caused all this – but, no doubt, the arguments brought forth by the protest and the debates it occasioned throughout the country and the world have had an effect on public opinion. Widespread opinion tends to generate its own publicity – and as anti-war sentiment gained ground, so editorials could attack Bush more openly and bring in thus more people to the Democratic fold.

    That also explains the recent attempts of many Congressional Republicans to distance themselves from the Bush Administration, which seems to have returned to its pre-September 11th 2001 lame duck status.

    My point is this; alright, protest on its own carries only shock value. Not much will ever be changed by the act of simply parading down a street. Protest marches are in effect what’s left once you’ve stripped the genuine political impetus from a movement. Had the war gone well, the anti-war protest movement could have been discredited.

    Yet the war is not going well, just like the war in Vietnam did not go well. This lends credence to those who either opposed the war or successfully adopt the position of being against the war now that it is going badly. And for the politicians who do that, there is this huge reservoir of voters to draw on, if they get the money to motivate them through the media and PR machines which politicians have.

    The protests are now having their effect, delayed though it may be – and whilst the Democratic majority is slim, some Democrats may be wary of wandering too far to the anti-war side of the line, come the results in November, all bets are off.

    Had there not been protests and massive opposition, do you think the political state of America would be the same as it is now?

  1. October 10, 2007 at 2:14 am

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