Updated at 11.30 a.m. ET on 2014-09-16
A key group representing Myanmar’s teachers said Monday it had joined students in opposing a proposed law aimed at revamping the country's education system, saying strong government controls under the draft law contradicted reforms that have been implemented by President Thein Sein’s administration.
The planned National Education Law has sparked heated demonstrations by universities in Mandalay, Sagaing and Yangon regions, which say that a commission to be established under the legislation would control the entire education sector.
Thuta, chairman of the Myanmar Teachers Federation (MTF), said the excessive controls reminded him of the country’s five decades of harsh military rule, which ended in 2011 with the setting up a nominally civilian government under Thein Sein following general elections.
“Because of the Ministry of Education’s control [under the junta], we have been suffering for 50 years,” Thuta said.
“If the Ministry of Education continues its control of Myanmar’s education, we have to question whether it is really on board with President Thein Sein’s reform process,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Thuta accused a former education minister under the junta and who is now behind the draft law of trying to “destroy” the education system.
He charged that Chan Nyein, a ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker who heads a parliamentary panel on education, had “destroyed our country’s education standard” as Minister of Education under the military rule.
Chan Nyein, the head of parliament’s Education Promotion Implementation Committee, has sought to exert stronger government controls over the nation’s universities by drafting the law, he said.
“We want the right to manage ourselves freely,” he said, adding that Myanmar’s education system had suffered immensely under military rule and remains short of highly-skilled instructors.
According to the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the budget allocated for education in the country is below six percent of national spending, despite a raft of democratic reforms issued by Thein Sein’s government.
In a statement Monday, the MTF said that it would back university students in their protests against the National Education Law, which civic groups say allows centralized control of universities and curtails efforts to bring about autonomy of the country’s institutions of higher learning.
“We would like to announce to the people that we strongly believe the National Education Law affects not only the education sector but the entire country and the people,” DVB quoted the statement as saying.
“Therefore, the Myanmar Teachers Federation will fully cooperate with student unions across the country who are pushing for education reform that will truly benefit the country.”
The student protestors in general want decentralized higher education that gives more authority to schools themselves to run their own affairs and relaxes rules on curriculum.
The MTF statement also criticized the government’s response to the protests, saying that “authorities have investigated, threatened, arrested, pressured and tried to control students who have protested peacefully against the education bill.”
It pointed out that the national Network for Education Reform (NNER), an independent body of academics and educators that was formed to oversee the school reform process, is also critical of the legislation.
Parliament passed the bill in July, but Thein Sein last month sent it back to parliament, saying 25 points in the proposed legislation needed further discussion, according to The Irrawaddy online journal.
Myanmar’s constitution permits the president to send bills back to the legislature within 14 days of their passage, but if lawmakers approve them once again, they automatically become law in seven days.
On Monday, the NNER met with a group of civil society organizations in central Myanmar’s Moulmein—the country’s fourth largest city—to discuss its recommendations to the National Education Law.
“We explained that the government should ask for suggestions from the people to draft the National Education Law,” Thein Lwin, chairman of the NNER told RFA.
“We told them what kinds of things should be a part of the education policy, such as what to include in the curriculum, and requirements for teachers and languages.”
He said that the civil society groups had largely questioned how to ensure autonomy for Myanmar’s universities and resolve the difficulties of teaching in the varied languages of the country’s remote ethnic regions, where minorities were often marginalized through the education system under the junta.
Thein Lwin said that the NNER also explained its opposition to the bill’s proposed establishment of an National Education Commission during Monday’s meeting.
“We told them that we don’t need the National Education Commission, as it is an organization that [centrally] controls the country’s education,” he said.
“If needed, the universities could collaborate to decide what we want [to add to the curriculum]. We don’t need [the NEC].”
The NNER, which has held nationwide talks over the past two years on education reform, rejected the New Education Bill last month for excluding many of its key recommendations.
Among the NNER’s complaints about the bill are that it ignores calls for local languages to be used in instruction in ethnic states, is discriminatory in articles dealing with special-needs children, and provides a definition of higher education that harkens back to the country’s authoritarian regime, according to The Irrawaddy.
The NNER has recommended that the Ministry of Education be a “facilitator” and leave school management to respective school boards, which include principals, teachers, parents, and respectable citizens.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun and Yadanar Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Thein Lwin as Thein Naing.