Zay Yah Oo | ယခုဆောင်းပါးကို မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရှုရန် ဤနေရာတွင် နှိပ်ပါ
Cite as: Zay Yah Oo. (2023). A Forgotten Student Movement: The 2002 Military Technological College Uprising. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 3. https://ijbs.online/?page_id=4275
It is well-known that students and their protests have greatly influenced the political history of Myanmar. Yet when people write about student politics and rebellions, they tend to focus on students at the many civilian institutions in the country and their grievances. This article furthers understandings of student activism in Myanmar by narrating an experience of the 2002 uprising at the Military Technological College in Pyin Oo Lwin. This college was set up by the military during a time when most civilian education institutions were kept shut by the regime and prospective higher education students had few options. Written by a student who participated in the uprising, this article uses firsthand experience, focus group discussions and primary sources to shed light on an unsung political event within the Myanmar military that led to the dismantling of an entire college, and the imprisonment of dozens of military students determined to have breached the Army Act.
This additional video was provided by the author for general context and is not in the print edition of this journal issue.
Students have consistently played an active role in the many protests against dictatorship in Myanmar. The student movement that emerged from the protests against the University of Rangoon Act of 1920 significantly influenced later generations of students to also oppose injustice in the educational system. But while students generally organize protests that are posited as being against the education system, these movements are in fact related to broader politics in one way or another. The unfair policies enforced by successive military regimes include betraying previous agreements with citizens and the student community has always resisted them. There are two root causes of student protest movements under military rule in Myanmar—first, the unjust rules and regulations enshrined in the education system by the military dictatorship that serve to support and enhance its own power, and second, the military’s unilateral breaches of contracts with students.
Student movements in civilian universities and colleges have been the subject of many publications in Myanmar. But one major student movement, taking place in 2002 and stifled by a blanket media blackout, has found no place in historiography. It involved students not from a civilian university, but rather from a military college: the Military Technological College (MTC). More significantly, one of the two central demands made by the students was actually conceded to by military leaders. Further, once the movement was crushed, the MTC was completely terminated—the only such college to have been so definitively shuttered in the wake of protests among its student body. There was no official announcement after the movement was crushed. All the students were expelled, with the leaders imprisoned. The event was concealed, with the military spreading disinformation, and misinformation also spread broadly in the media.
This article proceeds in four sections. The first section deals with the emergence of the MTC, the second section touches on the background situation at the college before the uprising, and the third discusses the uprising itself. The fourth section concludes by discussing the disinformation and misinformation that led to an identity crisis for MTC students later in life.
The Creation of the MTC
After the military coup by General Ne Win on 2 March 1962, Myanmar was essentially under military rule for 48 years, until the general election in 2010. During that period, the Myanmar military was the ruling class in Myanmar society. Civil society was subjugated under martial law. Military rule became more direct during the regime that followed General Ne Win’s 1988 resignation and the May 1990 general elections, with its ignored results. For example, most ministers were military officers, and the top ranks of the civil service bureaucracy were occupied by military officials. Other sectors like local administration, education, health, etc. were also in the hands of the military. In order to further maintain its grip on power, military leaders extended it into new areas of society. The MTC was a part of this direct military power expansion.
During the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) era that followed the 1988 coup, the military junta expanded their directly administrated education system, no longer limiting it to the Defense Services Academy (DSA), which trained future military officers. The military started programs and institutions to produce professionals like medical doctors, engineers, nurses, and paramedics. Although fresh graduates from civilian universities had been recruited as military doctors and engineers in the past, the recruitment of civilian professionals became difficult after the military’s atrocities against the people in the 1988 uprising. The SLORC barely trusted civilian students, and colleges and universities had been closed for some time. The military therefore struggled to recruit students from these shuttered universities to create a quality officer corps, which they hoped would remain loyal to the army under any circumstances. So they started to open their own colleges and universities.
In 1993, the military launched the Defense Services Institute of Medicine, which became the Defense Services Medical Academy (DSMA), and in 1994, the military launched the Defense Services Institute of Technology, which became the Defense Services Technological Academy (DSTA). In 1998, the Defense Services Electrical and Mechanical Engineering School (AGTI) was opened in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Division, and in 2000 the Defense Services Institute of Nursing and Paramedical Science was opened. Of these new military institutes, only the AGTI (after it changed its name, explained later) revolted against the military government, becoming the first and only military training institute in Myanmar to ever do so. A recruitment advertisement for the AGTI’s first intake was printed in the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar and is translated below and shown in the original Burmese in figure 1, which follows.
Students Wanted for the Diploma Course at the AGTI, Pyin Oo Lwin1
1. The applicant shall be:
a. Not younger than 16 or older than 20 years of age on 1 January 1999;
b. Single, and be a Union of Myanmar citizen;
c. At least 5ft. 3in. tall and 105 pounds;
d. On the matriculation examination A list;
e. Interviewed in person if shortlisted and passed English and Mathematics in the entrance examination, and;
f. Not bespectacled.
2. The selected shall enjoy the following benefits:
a. Salary of 650 Myanmar Kyat for the first phase, 700 for the second phase, and 750 for the third phase during training;
b. Benefits during training include free accommodation, rations, and healthcare plus uniforms, haircut and laundry costs.
3. It is a two-year course.
4. On the completion of the program, one can enjoy the following benefits:
a. Being directly appointed to various service arms and units as a technical sergeant;
b. Promotions to Warrant Officer Class 1 and 2 (WO-I & WO-II), and also to gazetted officer, will be carried out based on credentials.
5. On completion of the course, AGTI diploma certificates will be awarded.
6. If one qualifies, one may take entrance exams to attend a third year of education at any technological university.
7. Those selected shall serve in the military for at least ten years.
8. Free application forms can be obtained from and submitted to the Electrical and Mechanical Engineer Battalion or to the workshop squadrons in regional and divisional military commands.
9. Those who fail/ed relevant preliminary medical examinations need not apply.
10. The following documents must be submitted along with the application form:
a. An original copy of a testimonial declaring the applicant has good moral character and is not involved in politics, provided by township, division, and state police officers, along with seven passport-sized photos;
b. A photocopy of the applicant’s high school graduation certificate and a list of matriculation examination grades (bring the originals to the examination).
11. Applicable period: application forms are to be submitted no later than 14 October 1998 to the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Directorial Office, Ministry of Defense, Yangon.
12. To take the entrance examination, the applicants shall arrive at the following locations no earlier than 21 October, and no later than 22 October 1998, reporting their arrival:
a. No. 2, Main Workshop (Electrical), Amarapura Township, for Upper Myanmar.
b. No. 656, Workshop Company (Electrical), Botataung Township or No. 1, Main Workshop, Hlegu Township, for Lower Myanmar.
13. Civil and Defense servants who meet the credential requirements can apply through the respective departments.
– Quartermaster General’s Office
The Burmese language recruitment advertisement for the AGTI diploma course.2
After this recruitment advertisement did its work, the first AGTI intake opened on 18 November with 407 trainees. According to the advertisement, trainees who completed the two-year course would receive an AGTI diploma, and those who passed the examination with high grades were supposed to be able to continue their studies at any technological university.
Simply put, the details in the advertisement formed part of the contract between the military government and applicants, and students applied for the course because they trusted this agreement would hold. However, 16 months after the training, the government renamed the AGTI to the Military Technological College, and changed the details of the program along with it. The AGTI had become the MTC. An English translation of the new recruitment advertisement follows, with the Burmese original text displayed in figure 2.
MTC Engineering Trainees Wanted3
1. The applicant shall be:
a. No younger than 16 or older than 19 on 1 January 2000;
b. Single & a citizen of the Union of Myanmar;
c. At least 5ft., 3in. and 105 pounds;
d. Not bespectacled;
e. One who passed the matriculation examination (and be able to present matriculation examination marks);
f. One who passed the preliminary medical test at a township, state, or division general hospital.
2. Application forms can be obtained free of charge starting on 5 September 2000 and are to be submitted to the respective Regional Military Commands or Divisional Military Commands by 31 October 2000.
3. Along with the application form, original copies of testimonials attesting to the applicant’s good moral character and non-involvement in politics by township, division, and state police officers, together with three black and white photos of passport size taken within the last month, must be submitted.
4. Those who meet the credential requirements shall take a test on the following subjects by the matriculation curriculum at examination centers in locations including Myitkyina, Bamaw, Lashio, Kengtung, Taunggyi, Loikaw, Mawlamyine, Dawei, Myeik, Yangon, Pathein, Sittwe, Monywa, Kale, Mandalay, Meiktila, Magway, Taungoo, Bago, and Pyay:
5. One can check the list of eligible candidates at examination centers before 20 November 2000.
6. Candidate seat numbers are the same as in the application form; the timetable for the examination will be announced in the newspaper.
7. Shortlisted candidates who pass the entrance exam shall be personally interviewed in Yangon and Mandalay.
8. Salary and allowance will be granted based on academic year.
9. Those who pass each academic year shall enjoy the following benefits:
a. Second-year graduates will receive a Diploma of Engineering Science (AGTI) and will be directly appointed to various service arms and units as a technical sergeant;
b. Whoever passes with excellent grades will be allowed to attend third- and fourth- year programs, with graduates receiving a Bachelor of Technology and being directly appointed to various service arms and units as WO-I at other specialist rating positions;
c. Whoever passes the fourth year with excellent grades will be allowed to attend the fifth year, and if one passes will be offered a Bachelor of Engineering, and will be directly appointed to various service arms and units as WO-I at a technical position;
d. For those mentioned above who hold a Bachelor of Technology, if they complete five years of service as a WO-II, or if Bachelor of Engineering holders complete three years of service as a WO-I, they can apply to become military gazetted officers.
10. The selected shall serve at least ten years in the army on completion of the training.
For detailed information, contact the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Battalion/Unit.
– Quartermaster General’s Office
Recruitment advertisement for the MTC.4
There are a few differences between the two advertisements. The first promises that on completion of the two-year course, an AGTI diploma will be awarded, and those who pass the exam with excellent grades can attend any technological university. The second advertisement, however, stipulates that those who pass with high grades will have the opportunity of attending third or fourth years only at the same school. Upon completion of the fourth year, a Bachelor of Technology will be handed over. If one passes the fourth-year exam with excellent grades and attends the fifth year, he will obtain a Bachelor of Engineering degree. When the program structure and opportunities were changed by the authorities, students who enrolled on the merits of the original recruitment advertisement were not consulted or informed. Recognition of intake issues also arose—whether the first intake under the MTC should be recognized as the first intake or the second, as the school title and programs changed after the original first AGTI intake.
The school’s original students were in a dilemma; they did not know which intake they belonged to. Worse still, the school authorities themselves did not seem to understand the relations between the two original intake years. It was in this fashion that 435 new students were recruited into the MTC in February 2000.5 Back in those days, the college fell under the administration of the Defense Services Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Directorate Office, known as Kaka Hlyat, under the supervision of Lieutenant General Tin Hla, Quartermaster General.
The chain of command in the MTC was inscribed on a plaque monument (original Burmese text is shown in figure 6) as follows:
The MTC was founded and opened on 14 January 2000, administrated directly by the Defense Services Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Directorate Office, headed by Lieutenant General Tin Hla, Quartermaster General, under the guidance of Senior General Than Shwe, Chairperson of the State Peace and Development Council and commander-in-chief.
The inauguration ceremony was attended by Lieutenant General Tin Hla himself as well as the military-owned Myawaddy media. He delivered an opening speech and announced the opening of the MTC with its ‘first intake’, here referring to those recruited only after the AGTI became the MTC. The media interviewed that intake, but not those who were recruited the previous year under the AGTI, resulting in an identity crisis for these original students. They did not know which batch they belonged to or how they were being recognized, plunging them into despondency.
But some students increasingly expressed their dissatisfaction. Some military generals finally got wind of it through the school authorities. Brigadier General Aung Hlaing, who was then the director of the Kaka Hlyat, came to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay to talk to the disgruntled original intake students. He simply reiterated what was stated by Tin Hla in his opening speech. Although they were recruited as “Defense Services Electrical and Mechanical Engineering students”, they had become students of the first batch of the MTC. When later students for the third intake were recruited, the recruitment pamphlets provided to prospective students featured a brief history of the MTC, described as follows:
In order to produce AGTI (Diploma) holders for the Tatmadaw (army, navy, and air force), the Defense Services Electrical and Mechanical Engineering School merged with the Engineering Science Training Department on 29 September 1998. Then to produce soldiers holding the AGTI (Diploma), Bachelor of Technology, and Bachelor of Engineering degrees, the MTC, encompassing the former Military Electrical and Mechanical Engineering School, was opened in Pyin Oo Lwin on 26 February 2000. The first batch of the MTC consisted of 407 trainees and started on 18 November 1998. The second intake commenced with 435 trainees on 29 February 2000. The third batch will be recruited in October 2000.6
With this speech, the students who were recruited under the former AGTI learned that they were to be officially designated as trainees of the first intake of the MTC.
The MTC Before and Leading to the Uprising
The MTC was plagued by inconsistency and breaches of agreement. The military unilaterally betrayed the commitments it made to MTC students. Following the merging of the two intakes, a sour senior-junior relationship was created by college authorities, which led eventually to a student revolt. There was even a bad omen, a harbinger of imminent misfortune, at the opening ceremony of the MTC: while all the students were saluting the national flag at the forefront of the parade ground, the flag fell off the mast. Training officers said that if the flag fell off the mast on significant occasions, the entire battalion could break down for one reason or another.
After the official inauguration, Lieutenant General Tin Hla would occasionally inspect the MTC on visits, holding official semi-formal meetings with the students. On one occasion, the students and school authorities prepared to welcome him with pomp and grandeur, only to learn that he could not make it. It was later learned that Lieutenant Generals Win Myint (then Third Secretary) and Tin Hla were forced to retire, along with other top-ranking officers, because of ‘some issues’ within the military leadership.7 The MTC was then transferred to the administration of the Chief of Armed Forces Training Office.
The succeeding officers in charge did not seem to fully understand what had occurred at the MTC. Chief of Defense Service Training Major General Kyaw Win visited the college to discuss the issues with fourth-year students. They explained the difference between the recruitment advertisements of the AGTI and MTC, how the changes were unilateral without the consent of the students, and other student grievances. Kyaw Win said he did not know the root cause of the problems.
Another military school that opened at the same time as the MTC targeted high school graduates (those who passed the year 2000 matriculation examination): the Defense Services Institute of Nursing in Mingaladon, Yangon. It was later transformed into the Defense Services Nursing and Paramedical Academy (DSNPA). During that period, when most civilian universities in Myanmar were closed by the military, students who passed the matriculation examination (1998-99) had no choice but to study at military schools if they wanted to pursue tertiary education. In December 2000, a total of 2,183 freshly recruited students arrived at the MTC, and in January 2002, another 1,000 students were recruited.
There were several other military colleges that existed alongside the MTC. The one most relied upon by the military leadership, which has long been churning out high-ranking officers, is the previously mentioned DSA in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Region. It was established in 1955 and mainly recruits high school graduates aged 16-19 years. Formerly, its officer course was four years long, however, it shrunk to three years starting in 2000, when it began offering a Computer Science degree alongside arts and science degrees, similar to the civilian universities. DSA graduates serve in the army, navy, and air force as gazetted officers with the rank of second lieutenant.8
Another school in Pyin Oo Lwin is the Defense Services Technology Academy, established in 1994, which also mainly recruits high school graduates. Its courses are a full five years and graduates are conferred with a Bachelor of Engineering and are officially recognized as two-star lieutenants.9 There are two other major military schools in Mingaladon Township, Yangon—the first is the DSMA, which recruits high school graduates aged 16-18 for six-year courses. Graduates are directly appointed to the army, navy, and air force as lieutenants.10 Another is the DSNPA, established in the same year 2000 as the AGTI/MTC, offering four-year courses. Graduates are conferred a Bachelor of Nursing Science and serve in military medical units as WO-II. Now it has been extended to the Defense Services Institute of Nursing and Paramedical Academy, and upon graduation, higher ranked positions are prescribed.
The MTC, which was opened at around the same time as the above-mentioned institutes, was to meet a very different fate to the others. After the issues and incidents related above, Colonel Pho Aung, a graduate and product of the DSA, took charge of the MTC as its new principal. The academic departments and training programs, and one deputy director, were all under his control. When the students of the second intake started their studies, there were seven modules—Computer Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Power Engineering, Electronic Engineering, Mechanical Power Engineering, Machine Tools and Design, and Mechatronic Engineering. Computer Engineering and Mechatronic Engineering were new subjects that did not exist when the original AGTI intake joined. Only when the second intake students started to fill in the lecture hall were these subjects introduced.
The heads of the academic departments were military officers with engineering degrees; there were also some lecturers from civilian universities teaching academic subjects from alumni institutions such as the University of Yangon, the DSTA, the Technological University of Mandalay (TUM), and the Government Technical Institute (GTI). The training department was staffed with a consultant major, an adjutant, and other officers assigned to each division. Most of the training officers were graduates of the DSA. The principal was the wrong person in the wrong place. He was a colonel who graduated with a Bachelor of Science from DSA and had no engineering background.
The new principal’s focus was on military training, not on engineering in practice. While under the tutelage of Lieutenant General Tin Hla, the previous Quartermaster General, engineering was prioritized to some extent. Computers, teaching aids for engineering subjects, and materials for the multimedia system were well stocked on campus. But under the Chief of Armed Forces Training, the academic affairs of the college were no longer prioritized. Students lost access to teaching aids and materials for engineering subjects. Academic departments were understaffed. The curriculum was not well prepared. There was such a shortage of qualified teachers that the GTI’s graduated sergeants, warrant officers, and other fresh graduates were dragooned immediately into teaching at MTC.
The principal and college authorities, when asked about plans to improve the academic side of the MTC, showed no interest at all. Two female lecturers from TUM were asked to help with the schedule, and they did so for two weeks. Later it was learned that they were former classmates of the Department Head of Electrical Engineering. They were there at his request; no professional fees were given to them for filling in at MTC. The school did not even bother to cover their transportation fees. There were similar problems in other academic departments, too. Students of the Electrical Power Engineering and Electrical Engineering departments took the exam with no modules nor teachers to help them, even when the exam was drawing near, and students needed to be coached for extra periods. There were heated disputes and arguments between the academic and training departments.
The training department drilled new recruits at full throttle. They had to spend most of their time doing military training. Since the training officers were graduates from DSA, the students were trained hard like at boot camp. One academic year was divided into one month of leave, eight months of learning engineering theories, and three months of military training. The three months of military training were intense thanks to the training officers. What everyone, from those in basic positions to platoon commanders, needed to learn was taught practically and theoretically; the way they trained and taught was very systematic. Suffice it to say, they took great care of both. Occasionally the vice-principal himself took part in some of the long marches, carrying heavy loads alongside the students. While only three months per year were allotted to military training, students were often fatigued from this training and volunteering; from time to time, lecture periods were even canceled for it. Over time, the students started to doubt what the training department was doing. A pressing question popped up: were they bent on producing tough-as-nails soldiers ready for combat, or a true corps of engineers?
In Pyin Oo Lwin, there were two other military institutes along with the MTC. The students from all three institutes came into touch with one another when they had days off, etc. In the military there has long been a yawning gap in social status between officers and the rank and file at lower levels. This deep-rooted hierarchical culture has had a great sway on soldier-to-soldier relations and soured relations between students from different institutes. Graduates of certain schools quickly became officers while those from the MTC stayed in lower positions. The former tended to look down on and even mock the latter. This attitude affected civilians in Pyin Oo Lwin as well as officer instructors on campus who exercised this discriminatory attitude. At this time in the early 2000s, the MTC students’ confidence and trust in the system gradually started to wane.
As mentioned above, MTC had three graduate levels and a five-year academic program, and positions and diplomas were already lined up for each graduate level. Most of the students were hoping to earn a Bachelor of Engineering, with no ambition for military positions, but their dreams met stark reality. They began to understand that they had different expectations from the military school authorities.
The students had pinned their hopes on a grand graduation day. Students’ ineligible to attend the third year, who would have to enter the workforce after second-year diploma graduation, said they wanted to have their families and loved ones be present for their graduation. However, on graduation day, all the students were gathered in the workshop hall, and the leaders of each company of students, assigned by college authorities, were given AGTI diplomas on the graduating students’ behalf. Then they passed them around to the students. There were no parents present and not a sight of any high-ranking officer. The so-called graduation ceremony was held only in the presence of the MTC Principal Colonel Pho Aung.
In those days, military school graduation ceremonies at other schools were grand and attended by top military officers, with families of students invited.11 However, in this case, even the deputy director of the Military Electrical and Mechanical Engineering office, who oversaw college affairs, did not bother to show up. Some families, who came of their own accord, were not allowed to attend the ceremony. The question “Why is the graduation being kept secret?” crept into their minds.
Most students were also dissatisfied with the selection procedure for eligibility to attend the third year. Those who excelled in their exams believed they would be attending the third year, but these selections were not based on straight merit as expected; instead, selections were made by percentage. In other words, those who could move on to third year were chosen not because they achieved a certain baseline grade in the final exam (such as an A or B grade), but rather, the highest-achieving 25 percent of graduating students were made eligible, with the rest let go as warrant officers with AGTI diplomas. To the students, there were no significant grade differences between the eligible and non-eligible; it appeared arbitrary, frustrating students.
Perhaps the most crucial factor in the selection of who could attend third year was the evaluation of students’ military training. Most students who were not selected to study further achieved very high academic grades but poor grades in military training. The first and the second year each consisted of four terms and students could review their academic grades at the end of each of them. In this way they could evaluate their own performance and allocate time to study the subjects they found more challenging. However, the grades received for military training were not made available to the students during the first two years. There was no explanation of the criteria used by the training department to choose who was eligible for third year, and students’ eligibility depended more on these opaque training department grades than on their academic performance. This led to wrong views for the later recruits, and students began bribing relevant officers to win favor and ensure they were chosen to continue into third year.
The students of the second intake watched this dramatic situation unfold and saw that it did not accord with the MTC’s recruitment advertisement they signed up under. Students felt frustrated and depressed at their prospects. More and more students dropped out from college. Initially, these students were lightly punished. However, when the groups of students dropping out became larger and larger, the military began enforcing severe punishments.
They pursued the students who left the MTC and returned home, arrested them there, and brought them back to the college. Then, all the students were told to gather at the college parade ground to see the handcuffed renegade students. Cashiering, or discharging from the military with dishonor, known as tat htoke pwe in Burmese, took place on a large scale. Deserters were sentenced to one-year imprisonment in a civilian cell. The deserters in handcuffs felt ashamed and humiliated in front of their comrades; their friends felt uncomfortable and sorrowful. “Does a deserter deserve this kind of punishment as a young man in his tender age?”, the students asked themselves repeatedly. The authorities were trying to stoke fear in the remaining students so they would not run from the college in the future. In carrying out the punishments, they referred to section 38(a) of the Defense Services Act which deals with absence without official leave (going AWOL). These students were liable to be treated as deserters, with public cashiering in front of the entire student body. Such dehumanizing acts stripped students of their human dignity. Should such public shaming be held? The authorities did not seem to give the slightest thought to what the consequences could be.
The third intake of MTC recruits, conducted in December 2000, consisted of over 2,000 students. The intake before that had only 400 students. When the third intake arrived, the operation of the school somewhat settled, but two problems arose. The first one related to the second intake and the senior-junior hierarchy practiced at all Myanmar military institutions. In this system senior students rule over juniors with “one blood, one voice, and one order”. Juniors are monitored almost all the time. If juniors displease the seniors, they are punished. If one of the juniors is defiant, he is liable to be prosecuted for disobedience.
This senior-junior hierarchy results in juniors having less privacy than their seniors. This can suit students who attend all the years through at other military institutes and eventually become seniors able to inflict what they endured on others. However, it was problematic at the MTC, where most students graduated after only two years and only a few were able to attend third year and above. Almost all MTC students wanted to receive a five-year Bachelor of Engineering. In this context, was the senior-junior hierarchy necessary? This question lingered in student ears and caused some juniors to deliberately disregard certain college rules and take a defiant stance against seniors. Officer instructors severely punished them and tried to force the hierarchy down their throats.
In those days, the second intake students did not have full privileges as seniors normally would. The seniors of the first intake wore black taikpon (traditional Myanmar formal jacket for men) without buttoning it up. It was one of their privileges. But second intake students were not allowed this privilege. They knew any one of them could have bad luck and miss out on the third year. So, they started wearing the unbuttoned black taikpon without asking permission. Some seniors and training officers issued an order banning the practice. The frustrated second intake students then changed to pinni (fawn-colored) taikpon. The school authorities learned that the students were wearing the pinni taikpon as a statement against the officers in charge. When they did, they allowed the students to wear whatever they wanted. In fact, no authorities had the slightest idea why this problem arose, which was not just because of the senior-junior hierarchy but because of depression, discrimination by military authorities, and inconsistent policies.
A second problem arose when the students of the third intake started their terms. Unlike the first and second recruitment advertisements, this time the pamphlets were passed around among the students. The pamphlets said the following subjects would be taught:
- Civil Engineering
- Electronic Engineering
- Electrical Power Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
- Mechanical Power
- Machine Tools and Design
- Chemical Engineering
- Architecture Engineering
- Mechatronic Engineering
- Aeronautical and Aerospace Engineering
- Nuclear Engineering
- Information Technology
- Computer Engineering
- Industrial Engineering
- Metallurgical Engineering
- Defense Industrial Engineering
- Marine Engineering
Although the college authorities officially announced 16 subjects would be taught, when the students had to choose, they could only choose from six major subjects: Electronic Engineering, Electrical Power Engineering, Mechanical Power, Machine Tools and Design, Mechatronic Engineering and Computer Engineering. Unlike the second intake, even Civil Engineering was not there. This disappointed the third intake students.
Then, in January 2002, the MTC’s fourth intake arrived with over 1,000 new students. By then, students of the second intake had just completed their two years and the date for selecting those who could continue to third year was looming. Previous events were recounted by seniors to the third intake, who themselves had just completed a one-year term and were waiting to attend second year. These first-year students were nervous about experiencing what they heard about from their seniors. Prospective students and their families were also being dissuaded from enrolling in the MTC by current students. However, most families and prospective students did not listen or fully understand.
In March 2002, grades, and eligibility for the second intake students, who just finished second year, was released. Like before, only 25 percent of students were eligible to enter third year: 115 out of 432. Many students achieved high academic grades, but judgements on eligibility for further learning seemed again to be based on the opaque evaluations of the training department. Even students who were at the very top of their academic classes were deemed ineligible due to poor grades in military training. Students began bribing officers. Those who were blocked from attending third year, especially those who excelled academically, shed sorrowful tears among themselves and let out their feelings to their seniors. Their hearts were broken, and they felt embittered.
When it came time to bestow the two-year AGTI diplomas on students from the second intake, the graduation ceremony was even crueler than the first. Once more, parents of graduating students were not invited, no high-ranking officers were present, and only MTC Principal Colonel Pho Aung was present. Some students who could not accept this chose to boycott the ceremony and stayed in their barracks. Only two-thirds of the students were present there. The students responsible for the student barracks in each squad were gathered in the workshop hall and given the AGTI diplomas; they then distributed them to the students. Some third-intake students witnessing this sank into low spirits. They noticed that rather than an engineer, it was the school principal, Colonel Pho Aung, a graduate of the military DSA, who affirmed all the diplomas. They were gradually losing trust in the diplomas.
A rumor started spreading that there was still no plan to confer the degrees that were owed to the fortunate third- and fourth-year students, soon to graduate. The students were extremely anxious about it. Would the MTC or another institute hand out the degrees? MTC students at the time did not know that in fact according to prescriptions in the Education Law a ‘college’ cannot confer a degree. They were expecting a grand graduation in a convocation hall, yet to be constructed.
The rumors stoked mistrust and doubt. Fourth-year students went to the relevant officers to try and solve the issue. The officers growled at them to mind their own business, saying it would all be arranged by their superiors. The problem continued smoldering and even reached the company commander of student affairs, who humiliated the students during an assembly on the parade ground, saying, “Don’t think too highly of yourself! Whatever degrees you hold; you belong to ranks other than officer. Learn to know your position!”. Instead of helping the students or giving an explanation, he admonished them with these belittling words.
Factors such as these are what led to the eventual student movement at the MTC. Students were forced into a dead end. They were unhappy with the MTC’s management but knew that if they abandoned their programs they would be humiliated in front of their friends and comrades, cashiered, dishonorably discharged, and thrown into civilian jail for a year. There was one final straw that broke the camel’s back, leading directly to the MTC student revolt.
In 2002, the DSA had an intake of 3,500 students. In previous years, the DSA took in only 500 students. With this higher recruitment level, after completion of the three-year academic program at DSA, the academy would have accumulated about 11,500 potential graduates by 2005. Arrangements for a DSA rehearsal graduation parade of such a number had to be made. The parade ground needed to be prepared and preparations made for rehearsals. There were not enough students currently enrolled at DSA to rehearse for such a future event; therefore, the authorities instructed students from the DSTA and MTC to join the rehearsals as well, in April 2002.
All the students gathered on the parade ground one day in April as instructed. There were 3,300 students from three MTC intakes present. A brigadier general, who was station commander of Pyin Oo Lwin, and the principal of the DSA, supervised the rehearsal. Students were organized by their company and battalion on the parade ground, and they were appointed to a company commander, battalion commander, and platoon commander respectively. Although the students of the DSTA were able to assign themselves to positions like company commander, battalion commander, and platoon commander, MTC students did not get to assume any ranks with authority and were all commanded by the DSA and DSTA students. The reason for this was students at the MTC were not officers-to-be and therefore could not make commands in the military hierarchy. The MTC students could not accept this. They put forward several motions requesting officers to allow them to choose their own positions, but these were rejected.
The MTC students thought they had been devalued, discriminated against, and put to shame in front of the students from the other academies. The fourth-year students were the most sensitive to this. The senior-junior hierarchy ideology had been indoctrinated into them. This injustice was urging them to act.
In those days, there were only three academic years at the DSA, and most seniors were third-year students. In military terms, three white bars on the arms of uniforms indicate which year the wearer is in. There were four white bars on the fourth-year MTC students’ uniforms, yet they had less rights than the DSA third-year students. The MTC students took this as an insult. The fourth-year students made a final proposal to the officers to at least leave them out of the rehearsals, but this proposal was also rejected.
In great dejection, the students had to stand in line at the rehearsal and follow the DSA cadets’ orders. One DSA officer cadet commanding a company of MTC students hurled abuses at them. Some of the students could not tolerate this humiliation and were ready to stab him with the bayonets they were carrying. There were quarrels and even violence.
At the same time, a separate disagreement between MTC and DSTA students arose in another company. As MTC students were so displeased at being discriminated against, they broke order and no longer carried their guns in unison. They intentionally formed up when they should have been disbanding and regrouped during break times. They disbanded, regrouped, and dragged their rifles in a chaotic manner, to express their grievances directly in front of the high-ranking military officers who were staring at them. The station commander of Pyin Oo Lwin and other officers yelled orders through a loudspeaker to prevent the incident from escalating: “MTC students, follow military discipline!”.
The problems did not cease after the parade rehearsal. Back at the MTC, aggrieved students shared their feelings among themselves. The insult by the officers was felt by the entire MTC student body. They decided to search for the root cause of this discrimination, so that the next intakes would not lose their dignity or be stifled. They set their minds to action.
The main gate of the MTC in 2001, photo taken by an MTC student.
MTC students marching to classrooms in squadron in 2001, photo taken by an MTC student.
MTC students during military training exercises in 2001, photo taken by an MTC student.
The plaque monument of the MTC taken in 2001, photo taken by author.
The Student Movement Erupts
Taking all that happened into consideration, it is fair to say that the MTC was rife with injustice and unfairness. In the first place, the military betrayed the students, who enrolled with very different expectations to what they encountered. According to the recruitment advertisement and the school authorities, students who passed exams with excellent grades would be able to go on and eventually earn degrees in technology and engineering. In practice, this agreement was broken. Although the school was designated an engineering college, school authorities did not care about engineering, as well evidenced thus far.
Students finally surmised the military authorities could be trying to reinforce army ranks by luring students with the prospect of engineering degrees. Seniors felt that if they did not handle the situation early, more and more students who passed their matriculation examinations would be recruited in this underhanded way. Spurred on by this conviction, fourth-year students decided to complain to the authorities.
They did not inform their juniors of their first attempt. All the seniors signed a complaint letter and put it forward to the principal in May 2002. The reason they left the juniors out is that the students of the third intake numbered over 2,000 and were considered young, likely to act impetuously. If the seniors’ demands were met, the benefits would apply to all and would still benefit the juniors.
The demands made in the complaint were:
- To carry out the agreement that “those who pass the third year with excellent grades, recruited under the name ‘AGTI’ will be able to attend any engineering university”.
- In selecting eligible candidates for the third-year progression, selection shall be made on merit, as mentioned in the advertisement, rather than on arbitrary percentages.
- The principal who takes charge of the college shall be an officer who holds a PhD in Engineering.
- Since the MTC is an engineering college, engineering subjects shall be prioritized, and it shall be fully staffed with qualified lecturers.
- Given four years are required for a Bachelor of Technology and five years for a Bachelor of Engineering, the rank of officer shall be prescribed accordingly to graduates.
- Diplomas and degrees shall be signed not by the present principal Colonel Pho Aung but by an engineering officer who is recognized by the Ministry of Education.
This list was presented to the MTC principal. There was no response for about a week. The seniors submitted the same letter again. There was no response the second time either. The fourth-year students decided to take it a step further. They discussed with the third-year students (of the second intake) sending the demands to higher authorities. Given their concerns related to education, a copy of the complaint letter would be first sent to Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, chairperson of the education committee. Copies would also be sent to Chief of Defense Service Training Major General Kyaw Win, who was directly supervising the college, to Commander Major General Ye Myint of the Central Command, Mandalay, as the MTC was in Mandalay Region, and to Vice Senior General Maung Aye. The original copy of the complaint letter would be sent to Commander-in-Chief Senior General Than Shwe. The fourth-year students asked the third-year students if they had any contacts in the military to facilitate the letter’s distribution. Through these contacts the complaints were sent. However, nothing was heard back for about one month.
During this month a note of discord crept in between the senior and junior students. When they discussed the issues to be presented to the authorities, second-year students (of the third intake) and first-year students (of the fourth intake) were marginalized. This upset the second-year students. The senior students believed that the first-year students, who had only been at the MTC for about two months, did not comprehend the real situation on the ground. Therefore, they reasoned it was a good reason to leave them out. However, the second-year students, who had been at the MTC for over a year, were also not invited to the discussion. This led to mistrust of the seniors by the juniors; some juniors believed the seniors were up to something. Such swirling discord was not without reason, as all students faced injustice and hardships, and all were trying in their owns ways to put wrong to right.
Most students believed that attending the third year of study towards a Bachelor of Technology would be different from the first two years leading to an AGTI diploma. Second-year students thought that because third- and fourth-year students had already overcome the plight of being stuck with AGTI diplomas, and being limited to sergeant rank, these seniors were not taking their juniors’ plight seriously. All of this happened simply due to the inconsistency of school policy. The second-year students discussed filing separate demands by themselves. In this way, their own separate movement appeared.
The second-year students held discussions late every night in one of the out-of-the-way lecture halls at the back of the college, slowly building their confidence. They planned to put forward their demands with the signatures of second-year students to the education committee office, the department of the deputy chief of staff, and to the commander-in-chief. However, some objected by pointing out that if they presented their demands as such, they would only be cracked down upon. Finally, they decided to send the demands to Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, the chairperson of the education committee.
The second-year students’ demands were strong for good reason. When the third intake of students met with Brigadier General Aung Hlaing, Director of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Department of the Ministry of Defense, soon after starting their studies, he said he was pleased and satisfied with the recruitment of over 2,000 students, and he went on to encourage the students by telling them they would be able to attend a third year of study. Such false hopes and incentives were provided only to ease the mounting pressure. The second-year students demanded as follows:
a. There shall be no steps in between the AGTI diploma and the Bachelor of Technology. All students shall be allowed to do the bachelor’s degree.
b. Academic performance must be prioritized over military training. To be more systematic, the school shall be staffed with enough lecturers, applicable teaching materials and aids shall be arranged, and all students must be taught competence in basic computer skills.
c. In order for AGTI diplomas to be internationally recognized, the person who affirms the diplomas with his signature must be a suitably qualified engineer from the Ministry of Education.
2. If these demands are not met, authorities must allow students to return to their homes peacefully.
Students planned to return to their homes, even without approval, in the likely case that the authorities did not agree to their strong demands. Fourth-year students however did not have a plan B, so they could do nothing but wait for a response.
Second-year students systematically divided and assigned duties to themselves in order to carry out their plan B. For instance, back then the MTC authorities took away students’ National Registration Cards (NRCs) when they arrived at the college. If a student wanted to return home, they needed their NRC. One duty assigned to second-year students was to get back their NRCs by any means possible from the training department, where they were held, and to return them to the students. Other duties included preparing the demands, drawing up work plans, keeping meeting minutes, persuading other students into accepting their duties, and so on.
The second intake students, who were in their third year at the time, did not know which side they should take: the struggle of the second-year or fourth-year students. The first intake (fourth-year students) thought that the third-year students did not need to make separate demands since they had already been consulted, and most third-year students agreed with the fourth-years. However, when the second-year students made separate demands, the third-year students held meetings to discuss the issues. They held meetings in the drawing room in the far corner at the rear of the college late at night.
The third-year students, unlike the second-year students, did not visit one barracks after another to try and organize their fellow students. They instead invited only those who were interested and active. But as is the nature of young students, they disagreed and splintered into two groups—the first group supported the demands but the second were more lukewarm and wanted to wait and see. The first group argued that while they did not make any separate demands, they should stay in touch with those who made the demands and coordinate, if need be, they should stand up together in unity. The meetings ended in total disagreement without any solid results. However, the more active third-year students went on to coordinate with the second-year students. This was the final meeting of the overall movement, and for the third-year students (of the second intake), it was also their first and last meeting.
In this way, secret discussions, and meetings among MTC students were held continuously. The fourth-year seniors and second-year juniors made their demands incessantly. Finally, feedback came back from above. The Regional Commander of Mandalay Region and some other officers at different levels recognized the student movement. Coincidently, at that time some Myanmar military camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border were attacked by Shan troops, and the Myanmar government stated that some Thailand soldiers were among the Shan fighting forces. Due to this, tension between Myanmar and Thailand heightened. It was also a time of full military service in the Myanmar military, with all able troops on deployment. The students saw that the military leaders were busy with these issues.
Amidst this chaos, the students continued their struggle. If their demands were not met, they would head for home. This worked as a reminder. Not only second-year students but other students as well actively participated in discussions. Here again, they came up with dissident ideas. Some students wanted to march from Pyin Oo Lwin to Mandalay and then go back to their own respective homes. Some took advantage of the ‘weekend out pass’, which allows students to roam freely on the weekends, to go back home independently. Students in general agreed to return to their homes, but their routes and methods were different. They continued to discuss what to do next when they got home.
This news spilled over and reached the fourth intake. But still, they did not fully comprehend what was going on. When they talked to their parents on the phone, they broke the news, and when they received their parents at the college as guests, they tipped them off. Some officers seemed to get the hint. The students started to distance themselves little by little from school routines. Students became sparse at physical training, voluntary services within the campus, and night study. The officers did not severely punish these offenders.
Since it was the time for military training for third-year students, almost all their time was spent outside. They were only sometimes on campus. To close out military training, there were long marches and combat drills in the villages and camps in the forest behind the school.
The MTC students resolved that they would wait a month for a response to the second- and fourth-year’s demands and if there was no response, they would return home for good. This resolution reached military intelligence (MI) through students’ parents. MI officers came to meet the principal of the college. After that meeting, on 31 May 2002, the emergency whistle signal was sounded, and all students were gathered in lines. The authorities made surprise checks on the student dormitories. There, they found documents about the movement. At the parade ground, the principal Colonel Pho Aung himself interrogated one student after another.
The leading and most outspoken students were punched and kicked in front of the rest, arrested, and taken into custody. Students in their first, second and fourth years were present on the parade ground, witnessing the second-year students being assaulted. But at the same time, some fourth-year students were singled out for interrogation. Some prominent students were trucked away for what the MI said was “further investigation”. They were sent directly into the custody of other battalions outside of campus.
Afterwards, fourth-year students were separated from the rest in the workshop hall, which was normally used for other occasions. Simultaneously, second- and first-year students were locked in the practical workshop hall. They were locked away from 10 a.m., shortly after morning assembly, until 3 p.m. The intense heat, imprisonment, and lack of food was unbearable. They could not tolerate seeing their friends assaulted and demeaned. They were in a fit of rage after being confined for hours. They shouted out and pounded the doors in unison to let them out. The school authorities could not resist the cries of over 3,000 students any longer.
Then and there, the station commander and other officials were in fact discussing the students. When the screams spiraled out of control, the school authorities let some out. They were no sooner released than they demanded the remaining students in detention to be freed. When the authorities declined, they said that they would crash the doors open. They said they would go to the central outpost and surround it. The central outpost is an arsenal and the key base of any battalion. The intention of laying siege to a battalion outpost means an intention to occupy the battalion.
To stop a huge crowd of uncontrollable students from gathering, the guard soldiers fired into the air. While they were scared, when the students heard the gunfire, they still became angrier and went even more out of control. The station commander and the principal understood the situation and toned things down to coax them. The students calmed down but still insisted on freeing the students in detention. The station commander and the principal asked them to return to their barracks. The students said they would go back to their halls only when the detained students were set free. Finally, all the detained students walked free.
At the same time, fourth-year students were being kept waiting in the workshop room. That evening, the Chief of Defense Service Training Major General Kyaw Win arrived. He did not meet with the students. Instead, Deputy Chief of Defense Service Training, Brigadier General Aung Kyi (who was later appointed by the military junta to communicate with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest) held a solo meeting with the fourth-year students. At the meeting, the students presented the original 1999 recruitment advertisement for the AGTI and pointed out discrepancies between what was promised and what was delivered. Fourth-year students gave their explanations from a legal point of view. At that time, Brigadier General Aung Kyi admitted he knew nothing about the advertisement, and he did not know how to redress the situation. He said that in the Myanmar military, seniors were parents while students were their children and whatever the parents did was for the interest and wellbeing of their children. Therefore, the latter were obligated to heed whatever their parents did. The meeting ended with that. MTC authorities tried to cover this up as if it was just “following orders” in the army. Then the fourth-year students were ordered onto trucks to be driven to the Central Defense Services Electrical and Engineering Command, 31 miles outside of Pyin Oo Lwin.
When the incident took place, it just so happened to be the last day of the third-year students’ combat tactics training, which took place in Phaungdaw village, seven miles southwest of Pyin Oo Lwin. On the following day, while the students were preparing to return to the MTC campus, an order from the tactical commander arrived stating combat training would be extended for another week in a new location. Soon after this, the BA 36 (G3) guns, which the students used for their training, were confiscated from them. It was later discovered by the students that the principal ordered this because of the incident at school.
The third-year students were concerned about the situation and two of them returned to the campus to investigate in the evening of 31 May. They had a chance to talk with some second-year students, including those who had been previously detained. The second-year students told them what happened there and that they had no idea about the fourth-year students’ whereabouts; Chief of Defense Service Training Major General Kyaw Win had already been there and was going to hold a meeting with the students the following day to resolve the matter. The two third-year students came to realize that each student cohort’s objectives were being systematically diverted by the authorities in isolation; divide and conquer. They decided that the third-year students should not agree to the extension of their military training and should instead return to the MTC and join with the second-year students for the meeting with Kyaw Win. The second-year students were told not to do anything rash in the meantime and to try and rein in the first-year students. The two third-year students went back to the Phaungdaw village monastery where they were stationed.
On arrival, they whistled to gather all the students to explain the situation. Some dissent arose: breaching their orders by leaving the station and returning to campus was tantamount to violating the Army Act and the students could be gravely punished, even subject to capital punishment. The students had tried desperately to do their third year of study and receive a Bachelor of Technology. For some students, violating their orders was simply too much, and they objected to the plan. This intense discord led to brawls among the students. But when the dust settled, a majority of the students wanted to go back to the college. They packed their stuff and headed on a night march through the forest to the campus, facing various difficulties and hardships. Those who were in poor health were placed in the middle, and strong men in front and behind, holding sticks and flashlights. They had wooden mattock handles as weapons if they met any hostiles. About a hundred students hurried to the school. In this way, the third-year students of the second intake of the MTC knowingly violated the Army Act.
Some students peeled away from the main group overnight and went back to inform the students to the officers stationed in Phaungdaw village. These officers first tried to follow the students to talk to them, but it was impractical. They opted instead to speed to the MTC campus ahead of the students and stop them at the rear college gate, where the students would likely be arriving.
When the students finally approached the campus gate, the waiting military officers waved flashlights and greeted them with the words:
Leaving one’s station without any orders to do so is an offense of mutiny, which is liable to be punished by a death sentence under the Army Act. Before it is too late, return to your station. You all are forgiven for what have done so far.
One third-year student replied:
It is impossible to go back. Here at the MTC all of the students are facing problems. The fourth-year students’ whereabouts are completely unknown. We are here to join our juniors and face these problems together. Tomorrow, we’re going to talk with the Chief of Defense Service Training.
After these opening statements on the hill track behind the school, the students and officers argued back and forth for over one hour. When their persuasions fell on deaf student ears, the officers said the students would have to ‘stomp over their necks’, or go through them with force, if they insisted on entering the school. The students retorted that the issue had nothing to do with those barring their way, but with their higher-ups. The officers should sympathize with the students as brothers and let them go. The students then sat down to pay their respects in propitiation to the officers before them. The officers had been training the students for years, and had developed relations with them, so they were like brothers. They were so saddened by the students’ plight that they stepped aside and told the students to peacefully enter the college and return to their barracks, promising that they would take responsibility and solve their problems. The officers then went away in sorrow. These officers were later punished by their superiors for stepping aside.
The second-year students came to welcome the third-year students happily and heartily when they entered the campus that night. Immediately they held a secret meeting to discuss what they would talk about with the Chief of Defense Services Training. The meeting was happening quicker than they expected and they were not sure what to do. They argued discordantly with no tangible results. The following day they held another meeting. This time they came up with one idea. Whichever student was asked whatever question, the answer must all be the same: if their demands were not met, they should be allowed to peacefully go their homes. If they were not allowed to go, they would go home of their own accord. They went on to discuss what they would do when they got back home. Even when they got back home, they would not give up on the issue.
That morning they waited for their chance to meet the Chief of Defense Services Training. However, no such meeting took place. It was 1 June 2002. Some student parents had been waiting outside the campus to see their sons since the day before. They unfortunately did have the chance to meet their children. The school was surrounded that day by an ambush patrol made up of soldiers from nearby platoons. All access to the town was cordoned off; even the phone connection was cut. Under these circumstances, the students were still waiting inside MTC for their meeting with the Chief of Defense Services Training.
At that time, some students saw trucks removing the fourth-year students’ belongings and boxes from the student halls, and they flew into anger. The entire intake of fourth-year students was still being detained at the Central Defense Services Electrical and Engineering Command. One and a half hours later, some students suggested they mobilize and march to see the Chief of Defense Services Training right away, and they blew loud and lengthy notes on the whistles non-stop. In those days, each platoon commander, company commander, and battalion commander had a whistle. They alerted fellow students, blowing whistles. Starting with the second-year students, whistles reached the rest of the companies, and they followed suit. The whistles of the 3,000-strong student force, along with the respective commanders and others’, sent shockwaves across the campus and students from nearby companies came out onto the streets.
The students of the companies behind the campus, blowing their whistles all together, marched along the street that leads to the parade ground. Along the way, students from other companies were waiting for them. While marching, some students stated that whether they were allowed to talk to the Chief of Defense Services Training or not, they would head to the south entrance and march out of the school.
At that time, all the administrative mechanisms at the college had already come to a stop. Some training officers, who stood on guard to control the situation, simply went away. Unexpectedly, a mass student protest had just emerged. Driven by peak emotions, the MTC student protesters were ready for whatever came their way. They chanted that the authorities must release all detained students and fulfill their demands.
The commander of Mandalay Region at that time, Brigadier General Ye Myint, along with his bodyguards, approached the students and stopped 200 feet away. He whipped out his holstered gun and threatened them: “What do you take me for? I, the Mandalay Region Commander, am ordering you to stop”. The bodyguards aimed their guns at the students. However, the students were already familiar with guns and showed no fear, in fact, their anger only increased. Some students swore at the Regional Commander, picked up pieces of rubble and growled that they would throw them if the bodyguards fired. The second-year students were in an emotional state. The third-year students intervened to calm the situation down.
The third-years told the second-years that they were losing control and discipline, and that their goals would be obscured if there was a violent crackdown. Even though they were not listening to the officers, they should listen to their senior students. Then 15 or so third-year students held hands, went to the front of the group, and implored the students to maintain discipline, before marching forward. The Regional Commander and his bodyguards left, scolding, and warning the students.
After the Regional Commander departed, the Chief of Defense Services Training Major General Kyaw Win soon arrived. He came in a convoy of armed soldiers. The students were at the threshold of the parade ground and the convoy stopped 100 feet away from them. The armed privates took positions in all directions, pointing their loaded guns at the students.
Kyaw Win walked up to the students. He was joined by Ye Myint (again) as well as MTC Principal Colonel Pho Aung, some cameramen in plain clothes, and some other officers. Kyaw Win stopped ten steps from the students and stared them down. After a pause, he spoke:
How marvelous you big students are, huh? We have quelled all manner of university and college strikes. After firing a gunshot or two, we can control them. But you are unperturbed and indifferent. You aren’t scared, because you’ve acquired military training. Now you are protesters yourselves, right? You are not ordinary students but military engineering students…then, we will not use the simple G3 rifles, but sophisticated Uzis that fire hails of bullets instead.
While saying this, he pointed his finger at the armed soldiers dotted around the area with magazines slung over their shoulders.
When the country is already dealing with chaotic problems, you choose to pose another. But I am empowered to put your problem to an end. I can shoot you all dead. Nothing would happen to me except that history would know Kyaw Win crushed the engineering students. But I’m not shooting you. What’s your problem? Let’s discuss it right here, right now. You go first!
At that moment, the columns of students were standing. Since discussions could take some time, they were ordered to sit down on the spot. The discussion was lengthy but only its key points are presented in this article. Kyaw Win told the students to speak one after another; in total, seven students spoke sequentially. This was an official discussion between students and the person most responsible for the MTC, held in full transparency and heard by other officers. First, miscellaneous school problems were presented, such as the lack of lecturers, lack of focus on engineering, and poor access to computers and learning materials. Then came some student demands.
Kyaw Win said the school principal would help to redress the problems. But he also said it was not customary to comply with any protests or petitions. He said that if the students were not happy with that, they could run off to the jungle and go underground. The students stated they would continue their MTC studies only when their demands were met, and if these demands were denied, they should be allowed to go back home without any action being taken. Upon hearing this, Kyaw Win fell silent for a while. It looked like he did not expect this. It was likely that the letters to the high-ranking military authorities written earlier by the students had not reached their intended recipients, as if they had, Kyaw Win would have expected this demand. It was possible that the letters sent by the students never even made it off campus and were buried by low-level staff.
After that, Kyaw Win said that nobody could make a demand on behalf of others within the Myanmar military and there was no such “representative system” in existence. He said he would make a judgment about the affair right then on the spot. He then ordered the students who wanted to go home to step out on the parade ground and those who did not to remain there. He warned them not to persuade any of their fellows by any means. Now it was the students’ turn to fall silent. On their left and right were loaded guns aiming at them. They were in a dilemma. Each student now had to display their defiance openly in front of the high-ranking officers but feared that if they did so, they may be shot. After a few minutes, the first students stepped out to stand as ordered. The cameramen were taking photos of them without a pause. And then another group of students followed. Then another. Kyaw Win’s face fell and so did the faces of the other officers. They started to realize their ‘divide and conquer’ tactic was not working. By now, two-thirds of the students had stood out in front. Kyaw Win raised his hand to stop them.
Well, I appreciate your brave decision. Since you are dying to go home, I am sending all of you home, informing your parents of what happened. We will continue the studies of the remaining students but remember this: What you did here has never happened before in Burmese history and will never happen again in the future. I don’t want you to rub your mindset on our Tatmadaw. Those who want to go home are allowed to do so without any blemishes from punishment. But whoever instigated this will not be forgiven. (Emphasis added.)
After giving instructions to the school principal, Kyaw Win hopped into his vehicle and disappeared. The principal asked students who wanted to go home to give their names to their respective companies and left as well. As one of the two key demands had been complied with, most students were overjoyed, except for those who wanted to stick it through. On the outside of MTC they would be free to fly as they fancied, and they could shape their future. From that day onwards they refused to participate in the daily work that kept the school mechanism functioning. Before they headed for home, they were able to lead a carefree life on campus.
There were still armed forces on campus, tightening security, and there were rumors of a standing order to shoot and kill any suspicious attempts to leave the campus. The students could do nothing but wait to be allowed to go back home. Most students were having a great time; but simultaneously, one prominent student after another was summoned by military authorities to be investigated or taken away at night with no explanation. Most did not come back.
The list of the names of the students who wanted to go back home was duly taken as the principal had ordered. More and more students decided they wanted to leave the MTC. Suddenly, a piece of news arrived: each student bound for home had to pay 1,000,000 Myanmar Kyat in compensation. But their decision was unshakable. By this time, only 100 of the 3,000 students were willing to resume their MTC studies. Finally, the order came from the above: all students could leave for home. A week later, on 10 June, the students were driven to Mandalay in military trucks. Then the MTC was officially closed.
Not long after that, on 10 June, the detained students were sent to custody in Mandalay in three groups. Only when they arrived in Mandalay and met the prison officers did they know how many years they were to serve. They were separated into three- and four-person groups and thrown into the prison wards reserved for those with death sentences. After four weeks, they were sent to different prisons across the country. The prisoners from lower Myanmar were sent to upper Myanmar prisons like Bamaw, Puta-O, Khamti, and Kalay; those from upper Myanmar were sent to southern prisons like Mawlamyine, Hpa-an, and Sittwe, so as to be far from their homes.
The fourth-year students, who were detained at the Central Defense Services Electrical and Engineering Command while the discussions with Kyaw Win took place, did not know what to do. Some of the prominent fourth-year students were interrogated and detained separately, but the rest were taken to Mandalay and allowed to return home. The unlucky ones were detained at other schools and commands—some at the DSA, some at the DSTA, some at the Defense Services Administration School (Ta Ah Kha), and some at Military Training Command 2. They usually stayed in one place for three days at a time before being moved on for further interrogation. There was a rumor among the students that all the offenders would be given a death sentence, but it was learned that there were dissensions among the military leaders, so no death sentences were given. Then they were court-martialed in custody at the command where they were already held.
In the movement overall, 11 fourth-year students, one third-year student, 33 second-year students, totaling 45 altogether, were sentenced to five to seven years in prison. Moreover, some training officers who served at the school during the movement were also punished. Except some officers who were away from the college doing courses or other training, and those who were witnesses for the government (the military government), the other training officers were forced to retire along with Colonel Pho Aung, As a matter of fact, true to the nature of military men, they carried out their duties according to the orders of their superiors. Since officers do nothing of their own accord in the military without orders, they should not have borne the full brunt of the consequences of wrongful orders and flawed policies. It was the military leaders, absent of responsibility and accountability, who adopted the flawed policies and unilaterally betrayed their students.
In this movement, one of the two demands was met, so it can be said to have been a success. The youths who lost their future regained it—they could choose their new path and mold their future. At the time of writing in 2016, these ex-students, who are now around 40 years old, are mostly successful in their fields. While some have passed away, strong unity and mutual support still exists among most of the comrades who overcame their challenges and struggles together.
Disinformation About the MTC Incident and Students’ Identity Crisis
MTC students not only found it difficult to find their identities while in college, but they also faced an ongoing identity crisis after the college closed. They felt demeaned by their participation in the MTC. This is because disinformation was spread throughout the education and politics communities. The main lie that spread was that MTC students had supposedly demanded they graduate at captain rank. This was a cover-up intentionally spread by the military so that they could cover their breach of contract, mismanagement and injustices. They feared that people would find out how the MTC students questioned military policies. The MTC incident was a huge blow to military leaders, posing obstacles to the military’s goal of rapid expansion. When they later recruited students for the Military Computer and Technological Institute (MCTI), they made sure to avoid false promises and lures that could confuse students.
Another culprit perpetuating misinformation was the foreign media. Outlets like Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Irrawaddy spread fake news without using reliable sources.12 Myanmar was under strict military rule in 2002 and the MTC was not a civilian university, presenting challenges for the media to reach the students involved or other witnesses. Another article by Miller erroneously suggested that the MTC students staged a revolt because of concerns over rank and “the quality of the food”.13 This article went on to be cited by others, such as scholar Mary Callahan.14 Another writer, Maung Aung Myoe, attributed further stigma to all MTC students by claiming that a brawl between the MTC and DSTA closed the school.15 Even worse, he claims the MCTI and MTC are the same institute. The MTC was designed to offer five-year courses, two years for the AGTI, another two for Bachelor of Technology and one year for Bachelor of Engineering, while the MCTI only offers two-year courses for AGTI diplomas.
Other outlets like the Democratic Voice of Burma also (re)published misinformation about the MTC.16 Military leaders falsely alleged the incident at MTC was fueled by politics, so domestic media outlets did not report on it comprehensively. Because of that, the student leaders who were detained and convicted by the military had no access to any assistance from foreign organizations. The media did not reveal the true story; therefore, the military’s disinformation and misinformation from guesswork spread instead. Under military rule in Myanmar getting access to facts, for anyone, let alone foreign media, is challenging. Even the parents of MTC students did not know what was happening to their children. As soon as the uprising started, the authorities locked down all entrances to Pyin Oo Lwin. So, the media cannot be blamed entirely for their poor reporting.
The MTC students who had been detained were accused of treason by military authorities. They lost the trust of political and military leaders and were wholly shunned. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) failed to include the MTC student leaders in its list of prisoners of conscience. MTC student prisoners stood up to the prison authorities to be treated equally as political prisoners. As a result, they were tortured. During their prison terms, they had to fight for the right to read in cells and to eat their fill. There was no assistance nor protection from any foreign organization.
This continues to impact ex-MTC students. The influence of fake news still demeans them. Even after 20 years have passed, they still suffer from the identity crisis they experienced at college. When I am asked by somebody which school I went to, if I say MTC, they say something like, “Is that the military school that was closed because students protested about not having the officer rank conferred on them?”. As one of the student activists in the MTC student uprising, I hope this article contributes to wider knowledge of the event and can help MTC alumni with their ongoing identity crisis.
1 “Trainees wanted”, 1998. Burmese original shown in figure 1.
2 “Trainees wanted”, 1998.
3 “Engineering students wanted”, 2000.
4 “Engineering students wanted”, 2000.
5 “Pamphlet of the Recruitment”, 2000. This source is reproduced in full in appendix 1
6 “Pamphlet of the Recruitment”, 2000. The pamphlet is reproduced in appendix 1.
7 “Dateline of Myanmar”, 2003.
8 Kyi Kyi Hla, 2001.
9 Maung Aung Myoe, 2009.
11 Vice-Senior General Maung Aye, 2003.
12 For example, see the Irrawaddy news article by Kyaw Zwa Moe (2002).
13 Miller, 2002.
14 Such as Mary Callahan, 2003.
15 Maung Aung Myoe, 2009.
16 ဒီမိုကရက်တစ်မြန်မာ့အသံ၊ ၂၀၁၁။
Dateline of Myanmar Politics 1988-2002. (2003). All Burma Student’s Democratic Front’s Research Department.
Callahan, M. P. (2003). Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma. Cornell University Press.
Engineering students wanted for the Military Technological College. (2000, August 25). The New Light of Myanmar, p. 4.
Kyaw Zwa Moe. (2002, June 18). Students Sentenced to Death. The Irrawaddy. http://rebound88.tripod.com/02/jun/19.html
Kyi Kyi Hla. (2001). Valiant Sons of Myanmar. Myanmar Perspectives. https://archive.ph/uuz0F
Maung Aung Myoe. (2009). Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces since 1948. ISEAS.
Miller, E. (2002, June). Replacing the Structures. Burma Issues, 12(6). http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs13/BI2002-06-(V12-06).pdf
Pamphlet of the Recruitment Advertisement of the Military Technological College. (2000).
Trainees wanted for the Diploma Course at the Defense Services Electrical and Mechanical Engineering School (AGTI). (1998, October 10). The New Light of Myanmar.
Vice Senior General Maung Aye attends the graduation ceremony of the 1st Intake of Military Institute of Nursing and Paramedical Science. (2003, December 6). The New Light of Myanmar. https://web.archive.org/web/20050201025131/http://www.myanmar.gov.mm/NLM-2003/enlm/Dec06_h1.html
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