UPDATED at 12:26 P.M. ET on 2020-01-30
Myanmar university students staged a rare protest during a speech by the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi at an education sector event in the capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday, criticizing the civilian-led government’s decision in December to extend the academic year at all basic education schools by one month.
The Department of Myanmar Examinations announced on Dec. 20 that it was lengthening the school year through March 31 beginning with the 2019-2020 academic year. Basic education schools previously had started their academic years in June and ended them in February.
Aung San Suu Kyi was giving the opening speech at an education sector development workshop at the Myanmar Convention Center when students from the Yangon University Union, Sagaing University Student Union, and Educational College Union stood up with signs objecting to the Ministry of Education’s extension of the school year to March.
Other students demonstrated in a hallway outside the room where the state counselor was speaking.
They also blasted a decision by the ministry to cut in half the current 10-day classes for students enrolled in distance-learning courses.
Students from Mandalay’s Yadanabon University protested against the move in October, saying it would create additional expenses and hassle by requiring them to be physically present on campus for on-site classes two different times before taking their exams beginning with the 2020 school year, the Myanmar Times reported.
As of now, distance-learning students must attend school for 10 consecutive days before sitting for exams.
Those inside the room at Tuesday’s event held up signs saying, “We don’t want a non-research based education system,” “Will extending the academic year to March improve the economy?” “Respond to the demands of boycotted students from Mandalay University,” and “Don’t procrastinate in revealing the truth.”
Aung San Suu Kyi chided the students, telling them during her speech that the protest was unacceptable and that they were exploiting the event to promote their personal interests or the interests of a particular organization, but did not cite any by name.
“To those who are staging the protest and holding posters, I don’t have time to argue with you,” she said. “I cannot see any of your posters from here. It is not working. Please don’t use this ceremony to promote your personal causes or those of an organization. This is totally unacceptable.”
The state counselor also told the students to use proper mechanisms to raise their grievances.
“If you want to complain about your issue, we have the mechanisms and formats to do that,” she said. “You can openly submit your views by identifying who you are, but please don’t misuse the ceremony like this.”
‘Ignorant about our issues’
In many townships across the country, teachers and other Education Ministry employees have staged the protests over the government’s extension of the academic year for basic education students, with changes to the final exam periods for grades five, nine and 11 beginning in the current 2019-2020 academic year.
The Myanmar Teachers’ Federation issued an announcement on Jan. 5 contending that extending the academic year would cause hardships for teachers, students, and parents, without improving the quality of education.
Opponents argue that children in rural areas are needed to provide an extra hand on family farms by March.
Tin Maung Win, deputy director general of ministry’s Basic Education Department, had met with protesting university students to hear them out.
The students requested a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, but they were turned down.
Education Ministry spokesman Ko Lay Win told RFA that the protest in Naypidaw on Tuesday was a “horrible act” and said that the ministry had no plan to take action against the protesers, but would do so if they continued to demonstrate.
Aung Pyae Sone Phyo, secretary of the student union at Yangon University of Education, said high school and college students from across Myanmar are rallying to show their disagreement with the measure and with what they say is the government’s procrastination in resolving issues raised by boycotting students at Mandalay University.
Mandalay University students were up in arms in September, accusing their rector of not following the government’s tender rules for the awarding of a new campus food court contract. They formed a protest camp on campus after the Education Ministry said it would set up a special committee to investigate the rector.
“We are raising awareness among the leaders since they are often ignorant about our issues,” Aung Pyae Sone Phyo told RFA. “We have assumed that our demands never reached them since they never responded.”
Students also have complaints about the Ministry of Education, which they claim is mismanaged, he said.
“They [ministry officials] made an important policy change without listening to the voices of participants of all levels,” he said.
‘It will proceed’
Win Maw Tun, Myanmar's deputy education minister, said the decision to lengthen the academic year was done to bring it into line with international standards that call for a 10-month school year, and that the government would not change its decision.
“The plan for extending the academic year has already gotten underway,” he said. “It will proceed whether they like it or not.”
Zar Zar Aung, a primary school teacher from Loikaw township in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state who attended the workshop in Naypyidaw, said he was not pleased with the ministry’s move.
“To be frank, I’m not happy with the decision,” he told RFA. “In my part of the country, students stop going to school during that season since they have to tend to their families’ farms.”
But Thi Thi Aung, a high school teacher from Myeik township in southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region said she believes the change is good.
“I think the change is constructive,” she said. “I don’t think there are any parents who don’t like the new change. They would prefer to see their children in school. Otherwise, some children would be unruly and disorderly.”
Aung San Suu Kyi said that the government is not able to spend as much money on the education sector as it would like because of the demands of development for the struggling Southeast Asian country, although it has increased the education budget annually.
Reported by Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.