The story of the white rose

"We don't have any weapons; we only have our own bodies to fight for what we want," said education activist Phyo Phyo Aung last January.

The 27-year-old is the general secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and a member of the Democratic Education Movement Leading Committee. She is currently being held in the notorious Thayawady Prison with aw real of her comrades and supporters for defying authorities in her public demands for a democratic education system.

It has been reported by released activists that the detained student activists have suffered enhanced interrogations and beatings inside the prison.

The arrest of students continues, and there is no indication of when the detained activists will be released.

Phyo Phyo Aung and her fellow captives were m put on trial on March 11. The young lady slapped the hands of the police officer that tried to make her bow and kept her head straight.

She walked confidently and assured her mother my to worry.

Phyo Phyo Aung has developed a reputation for standing firmly by her beliefs. Although her posture is lean and gentle, she is tougher than she looks. She refuses to bow to authority and does not regret her activism.

She is no stranger to prison. She was born in 1988 amid the pro-democracy uprising. The military regime arrested her father Dr Nay Win on multiple charges and imprisoned him, branding him a communist.

The authorities have also accused Phyo Phyo Aung of being a communist puppet.

However, she has managed to separate her actions and beliefs from those of her parents, and she does not discuss her work with her family.

When her parents arrived at the Letpadan protest camp with donations, she reprimanded them: "How dare you follow me amid the [authorities'] accusations!"

Her father was released and reunited with his daughter in 2004. But their freedom was not to last long; both of them were jailed in 2008 for their political activities.

Phyo Phyo Aung spent her middle school years reading political books and studied politics in university.

Why is the education system deteriorating? Why are the people of Myanmar living in poverty? Who is responsible for this situation? Her studied led her to these questions.

She joined the ABFSU when it was reorganised in 2007, equipped with a political zeal that developed independently of her parents. She ran campaigns and helped form 26 district level student unions and 40 local student unions. She also took part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

She caught the attention of the authorities since 2007 and was detained the following year. She endured her very first prison sentence in her 20s, showing no fear.

Phyo Phyo Aung and her fellow activists lent a hand to the victims of Cyclone Nargis and buried unidentified dead bodies after the storm shook the country. They were arrested and imprisoned for this action as well.

She was given a four-year jail sentence without any court hearing. She was held in Insein Prison for four months and later sent to Mawlamyine Prison. Her initial days in custody were not counted in her prison sentence.

After spending six months in Mawlamyine Prison, a custodian offered to tamper with her records to shorten her remaining jail time.

She rejected the offer, asking if the custodian had read her casebook, and he replied he had.  

Then, Phyo Phyo Aung said: "Let it be."

Later, President Thein Sein reduced all political prison sentences by one year.

Phyo Phyo Aung was released after serving three years and four months in prison.

She was a third-year university student specialising in civil engineering when she was arrested in 2008. She tried to continue her studies when she was freed, but university authorities required her to submit letter of request.

She replied: "There's no reason to get offended twice," and she left the classroom with a pledge to set the education system right.

She believes that education is important for all and that the authorities do not have the right to decide a student's access to learning. She campaigns for the freedom for every student to choose his or her own course. She has openly stated that the Myanmar education system needs urgent reforms.

Phyo Phyo Aung comes from a middle-class family. While father was in prison, her mother ran a shop to feed many family members.

When she was three years old, Phyo Phyo Aung's shoes were stolen while she visited her grandfather's house. When her parents condemned the thief, she defended him, saying: "Let it be; the thief took them because he needed them."

She does not appear to be emotional, but she is known for her consideration for others. She known to be an oath-keeper who takes promises seriously.

She joined her comrades when they decided to form a student protest column. She had just married before the students' march began, and she forwent her honeymoon period to partake in the protest. When the demonstrators were brutally disbanded by police, she did not abandon them.

On March 10, her leadership skills were tested when the conflict broke out between the protestors and police. Her efforts to calm angry female students were a stark departure from her reputation as having a will of steel.

However, she remained unbowed when she was captured.

"She doesn't think about political affairs like a politician. She wants Myanmar to be like a Scandinavian country," said Lin Htet Naing, her husband and ABFSU member.

The government has ignored the demands of the students to amend the National Education Law.

The authorities agreed to talk with students when the protest march reached Taungtha Valley. First, they met in Nay Pyi Taw, then planned a four-party meeting at the Diamond Jubilee Hall at Yangon University.

The students met head-on with government negotiators, especially with Union ministers Aung Min and Tin Naing Thein from the President's Office, officials from Ministry of Education and parliamentarians during the four-party talk.

The authorities found it hard to swallow the 11 demands and nine pre-conditions presented by the student representatives. The discussion grew tense when the topics of acceptance of student unions and cessation of the protest march were raised.

The students convincingly presented their arguments for the necessity of student unions and of the student protests, driving the government negotiators into a corner.

The authorities eventually warned the students that continuing protest march was against the law.

Minister Aung Min insisted firmly on the termination of the protest and said the government would not be held liable for any incidents that may occur beyond the Popa region.

Phyo Phyo Aung responded: "We have our own claims. The talk is not going along well, even at this point."

"Even now, we are facing a plethora of challenges. The meeting has now come into a shape after 60 days of student protesting. The outcome of the meeting depends on our protests. The students are protesting in a peaceful and disciplined manner. They are simply demanding what they want. If the government violently cracks down on such peaceful protests, they will be responsible for violating the rule of law,” said Phyo Phyo Aung.

Along with Phyo Phyo Aung, ABFSU vice chairman Moe Htet Nay and Thiha Win Tin and Honey Oo from the federation's central committee were arrested and sent to Thayawady Prison on March 13.

Chairman Kyaw Ko Ko is currently on the run from the police. Authorities appear to be targeting the ABSFU. They have also attempted to separate ABSFU students from individual university student unions. The authorities seem to be attempting to control the federation arresting it's most hardline members.

Then ABSFU reemerged in 2007 after almost 20 years of inactivity, it's leadership was almost completely different from what it had been in 1988. The new federation was led by Kyaw Ko Ko, who rallied the hardline members now in custody to join the federation.  

The ABFSU joined Buddhist monks in the 2007 Saffron Revolution against the government. After the subsequent crackdown, they went into hiding, and many were arrested in 2008 and 2009.  

Despite arrest of their leaders, the remaining members continued the federation'so activities. When Kyaw Ko Ko was arrested, Min Thway Thit continued to fly the ABFSU flag.

Those arrested were released in 2011, and they seized the chance to reconstitute the federation. They also invited a new generation members to join the movement.

Myanmar's first student strike was staged in 1920, while Myanmar was under British colonial rule. The second strike happened in 1936, when the ABFSU was founded. The movement served as a major impetus for independence.

A military coup was staged in 1962, and the building of the Student Union  at Yangon University was ordered demolished by the military government. Many students sacrificed their lives under the military dictatorship. Ultimately, the whole education system was destroyed.

The pro-democracy uprising in 1988 was also launched by young students.

Some politicians turned their back on reforming the country for fear of harming their interests, but students have always remained at the forefront. The people encouraged and supported them.

Everyone who experienced the events of 1988 would know the extent to which students and the ABFSU could perform astonishing feats. The centrality of students in Myanmar's political scene is recognised by much of the public.

The public also looks to student movements to represent their interests, rather than the interests of public officials and their patrons.

The government's contempt for the ABFSU has become clear since the beginning of the Thein Sein administration.

Over the past four years, some politicians, dissidents and returnees from exile have joined the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Centre. ABFSU members have not joined. Those who joined the MPC have received various benefits from the government. The ABFSU has not.

Now, there are many politicians and journalists with links to the MPC. In this regard, those reluctant to cooperate have become victims of political attacks.

The recent targeting of the student movement can be seen as evidence of the government's resentment of Kyaw Ko Ko and Phyo Phyo Aung, whom the MPC has failed to court.

Even with its leaders under arrest, the ABFSU retains its independence from the MPC.

Unlike the activists who joined the MPC upon their release, the student leaders who were released from jail in 2011 with no possessions or wealth have not changed over the last four years.

Now, they demand the amendment of the National Education Law in the interest of students across the country.

As it did in the Khin Nyunt era, the government is attempting to soil the reputation of the ABFSU by accusing the movement of receiving support from nefarious entities.

But these efforts are failing. The public continues to support the students. It would be in the government's interest to release the detained student leaders.

The opposition National League for Democracy should give more support to the students through parliament. Many members of the NLD come from previous student movements, so today's student leaders deserve more than empty statements.

Aside from the Myanmar public, there is no one behind the students who are now facing arrest, torture and oppression. And for Phyo Phyo Aung and her colleagues, there is no cause to lose courage. The 1920 student strike began with about 20 people. Those who fought for the country’s independence and established Myanmar’s army were initially just 30 comrades. The people are behind the students, and the international community is watching.