University of Yangon—formerly Rangoon University—has been the center of civil discontent in Myanmar since British colonial rule. Most famously, on July 7, 1962, students gathered to protest rules imposed on the campus after a military coup installed dictator General Ne Win in power. Military forces fired indiscriminately at the crowd. Sixteen were killed according to the official government count, but All Burma Federation of Student Unions claims the death toll was upwards of 100. "The bodies, some students still alive, were crushed at the sewage treatment plant in Rangoon," according to a post from Burma National News. The junta blew up the student union building the next day.
The university was center stage for protest for years after, most recently the site of a 1996 demonstration that demanded disclosure of police brutality and the right to form a student council (the WSJ has a brief history of unrest at Yangon in slideshow form here). The school has few students now, and remains in disarray, crumbling from neglect and a fear that repairs may jostle the "resigned calm that has settled on the campus," according to a piece published in the Washington Post today.
President Obama's choice of venue is a nod to his administration's careful non-endorsement of the Myanmar government, where hundreds of people remain political prisoners and more than 100,000 are displaced due to ethnic violence, according to the AP.
A recent Washington Post piece offered a brief but fascinating look at the university and President Obama's choice to speak there:
Today, few students walk the broken pathways of what was once one of Asia’s finest universities. Birdsong fills the halls of cracked buildings. For many, the school — which was renamed University of Yangon in 1989 — has today become a symbol of the country’s ruined education system and a monument to a half century of misrule.
“Obama knows very well about the history of Yangon University, I think. This is an enemy place for the authorities,” said Hla Shwe, who fought with Communist insurgents and spent 25 years as a political prisoner.
The room being prepared for Obama's speech is being renovated for the occasion, while the rest of the campus remains overgrown and crumbling, a stand-in for the country's deteriorated education system.
Inside the school’s Convocation Hall, where Obama will deliver his speech, is a riot of staple guns, buzz saws, sandpaper, hammers, spackle, drills, brooms, and fresh paint. But the facade of the building remains cracked with a black crust. Local superstition holds that scrubbing the building clean would unbalance the resigned calm that has settled on the campus and spark another round of unrest.
The curbs, lampposts and buildings that line the main road to the hall have been covered with fresh paint, but elsewhere the campus is a picture of moldering neglect. Broken desks lie stacked in the rain and shunted into unused cobwebby rooms. Teachers in bright blue sarongs walk past buildings sprouting weeds. Stray dogs nap in dilapidated corridors.
Only time will tell how the university's legacy of informed dissent will yet play out at this long-traumatized center of learning.