Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi urged student protesters on Tuesday to hold talks with the government about their opposition to the country’s controversial education bill, while stressing the need for the legislation to be passed as soon as possible.
The chairperson of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party urged the students, who are marching 638 kilometers (400 miles) from central Myanmar’s Mandalay city to the commercial capital Yangon in protest against the National Education Bill, to hold discussions and negotiate with the government.
“Whether it is in this country or in any country, the best method to resolve problems is to discuss and negotiate,” she said in response to a question from the media about the student protest, as she was arriving at parliament for a meeting.
“If one wants democracy there must always be give and take negotiations. Resolving problems is not just one-sided. All sides and everyone must give and take. If one side wants 100 percent of what it wants, there will be no give and take.”
Aung San Suu Kyi also said just as appropriate changes should be made to the National Education Bill, which the students say curbs academic freedom, it was also necessary for the law to be passed as soon as possible.
Ye Htut, Myanmar’s minister of information and presidential spokesman, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that parliament had already agreed last week to a request by President Thein Sein to reconsider some sections of the law and asked the education ministry to submit the necessary amendments.
“As such, this is the time to negotiate,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “That is why I see it as this is not the time to demonstrate and protest and create instability.”
He also said that from an education point of view, the laws and organizations that the government has established are meant to maintain the country’s educational standards.
He stressed that since the government had already offered to hold discussions on the legislation, the student protestors should take up the offer.
“One must consider whether instability is desired or the emergence of a draft law that is acceptable by everyone,” he said, adding that only student representatives who had been elected by their colleagues should participate in the talks.
Also on Tuesday, local media reported that some students were wanted in connection with an incident at a university in Myingyan city in the Mandalay division of central Myanmar, where they pulled down the national flag and replaced it with one from the student protestors.
“The main thing is that in expressing oneself, it should be carried out in accordance with the law,” Ye Htut said. “Forcible entries, pulling down the national flag—such acts that violate the law are acts which are not to be carried out.”
Aung San Suu Kyi and Ye Htut made their comments as more than 300 students continued the march, which began on Jan. 20, and entered Taungtha township in Myingyan district of the Mandalay division after a 100-strong police blockade had kept them from passing through earlier, according to local media reports.
The students negotiated with local officials and education authorities for passage and were told that Aung Min, minister of Thein Sein’s office, and other deputy ministers wanted to meet with them, said Aung Hmine San, an official of the central working committee and research committee of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), an umbrella group for all students in the country.
“We told them that we would be willing to meet with them, but that they would have to open the marching route of the protesting students,” he said. “They discussed our reply at different levels and opened up the blockades.”
Leaders of the protesting students will reportedly meet with a ruling Union party minister on Wednesday in the capital Naypyidaw, while the remainder continues their march.
Last November, hundreds of students held an unauthorized four-day strike in Yangon calling for amendments to the National Education Bill. They wanted a guarantee for the establishment of student and teacher unions independent of the government, changes to exam and entrance requirements at universities, the introduction of ethnic languages, and a modernization of the national syllabus.
They also issued a 60-day moratorium and requested the establishment of a 15-member committee comprising students, government leaders, parliamentarians and the National Network for Education Reform to discuss changes to the bill.
But when the government failed to hold discussions, the students began their peaceful protest march last week. Their ranks have swelled as Buddhist monks supporting their cause have joined them along the way.
Returned to parliament
The National Education Bill was passed by parliament in July but sent back by Thein Sein, who suggested 25 amendments.
Despite strong criticism from education activists, parliament passed the bill again in September, approving 19 of the president’s amendments and rejecting six.
Myanmar’s education system is still recovering from decades of neglect under military rule, when the government clamped down on academic independence and freedom because the ruling generals viewed the nation’s universities with suspicion.
Reported by Win Naung Toe, Wai Mar Htun and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.