“There’s no friend like wisdom”
– Yangon University motto (clearly someone never owned a dog)
Rangoon College was first founded by the British in 1878, became Rangoon University in 1920, and finally Yangon University when the city’s name was changed in 1989. Its style of instruction was modeled on old-world British universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and aimed to instill their values and attitudes into young Burmese elites – but instead became a hotbed of anti-colonialism, and an engine of protest.
The most iconic building on the campus, Convocation Hall was completed 1927, and since then has hosted the annual graduation ceremonies (including on the day I took my photographs) and many important speeches. Graduates from the university include two prime ministers; one deputy prime minister; U Thant, the third secretary general of the UN; and General Aung San himself. It has hosted visiting world leaders for speeches, including Obama in 2012. There are various other interesting buildings around the campus, and at the weekend it makes for a very pleasant and relaxing wander, with a calm atmosphere and minimal traffic on the roads.
It’s not always quiet though: students have consistently been one of the foremost actors in Myanmar’s political history, and have not shied away from confronting power. Long before the landmark 1988 protests there were many examples of student dissent: anti-colonial protests broke out in 1920, 1936 and 1938, and in 1962 protests against Ne Win’s coup led to the destruction of the student union building with dynamite; the ruins becoming a symbol of student resistance.
Twelve years later, both Convocation Hall and the site of student union were involved in the crisis around U Thant’s burial. Thant Myint-U, grandson of U Thant, gives a first hand account in his book The River of Lost Footsteps: U Thant had died in the US, and was flown home to be laid to rest. The body was placed at Kyaikkasan racecourse for the public to pay their respects, and by government design would then be buried at a small private cemetery – no state funeral, no significant monument.
Seeing this as an insult, students seized the coffin, and took it to Convocation Hall. While students, the government and the family of U Thant negotiated a solution, other students began construction of a mausoleum on the site of the student union. It was brought there temporarily after an agreement was reached, but the more radical students seized it a second time, determined to inter it at the site permanently.
In this atmosphere of rebellion, the university became the site of open talk of overthrowing the Ne Win government. Three days later the government responded in force, killing an unknown number of protestors, and sparking further riots throughout the city. U Thant was interred in the mausoleum south of Shwedagon the next day.
The university was also chosen as the site for the official surrender of Japanese forces in Myanmar, following Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II. In the image below we can see General Heitarō Kimura, leader of Japanese forces in Burma, and three of his staff handing over their swords to the British senior command as part of a formal ceremony. The chalk on the ground is to mark the choreography of the event – Kimura is the last to hand over his sword, so he and the Brigadier opposite are stood in white circles, and just visible are those that marked where the men at the front had initially stood.
It was Kimura who ordered the retreat of Japanese forces from Rangoon prior to the allied assault I talked about here. After the war he was put on trial for war crimes, in large part due to the abuses committed by his troops against prisoners. His defence was that he had issued orders for them to refrain, but the court argued that a commander’s duty is not just to issue orders, but to ensure they are being followed. Kimura was found guilty and hanged in 1948.
This area is now a car park, and a small field used for by the university for events. On the day I visited it was full of people taking photos for graduation day. Congratulations class of 2018!
For more on U Thant’s burial, see this Myanmar Times article, and of course Thant Myint-U’s book.