Around 200 Myanmar security personnel have been deployed along a route used by students marching in protest of a controversial education law they say will limit academic freedoms, drawing concerns from sympathetic residents, sources said Thursday.
The students from Mandalay, who have been marching to Yangon since January, arrived in Magway region’s Taungdwingyi township Thursday as part of protests calling for amendments to the National Education Law, passed last September.
They are expected to reach the area’s Satthwar village tomorrow, where the security personnel will be waiting for them, said resident Zaw Min Tun.
“[The security forces] have been here for about two nights now and nearly all of them have stationed themselves near the pagoda compound—everyone from the area can see them,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The people in the village are starting to wonder what is going on and what might happen. We have formed an emergency committee to help with all of the needs of the students and for their security as well.”
Students in Myanmar, a former British colony also known as Burma that is emerging gradually from decades of military rule and isolation, are viewed with wariness by the government because they have often spearheaded movements for political and social change.
Staff at the Satthwar police station declined to comment on the buildup of security personnel in the village, though the Mandalay column had been temporarily joined by 800 residents on its march to Taungdwingyi after leaders gave a speech at a local university, according to the Irrawaddy online journal.
The Mandalay column was one of the few student protest groups that had not suspended its march to Yangon ahead of planned four-party talks on the education law with the government, lawmakers and the Network for National Education Reform (NNER), an organization consisting of educational, political and religious groups.
The students are protesting the legislation’s centralized control of the curriculum, ban of student and teacher unions, and lack of education spending increases.
Several other protest columns from around the country have resumed their marches to the commercial capital Yangon following the government’s decision to postpone the talks on Tuesday—the day they were due to commence—until after Union Day on Feb. 12.
Government representatives had prevented support staff and media from accompanying students and NNER members to the negotiations venue in the capital Naypyidaw, saying there was not enough room in the meeting hall, sources told RFA.
The government had also claimed to be preoccupied with Union Day events and questioned whether a student delegation summoned to the capital Naypyidaw was representative of wider sentiment among the marchers.
Also on Thursday, Wai Moe Naing, president of the Monywa University Students' Union in Saigaing division said his 200-student column had reached Pakokku in Magway region where it would join with others to continue its march.
“The students from Pakokku and other cities close by, such as Magway, Yenangyaung and Chauk [all in Magway region] have made contact and will be combining to make up the Pakokku protest column,” said Wai Moe Naing, who also represents the Action Committee for Democratic Education, a 15-member student alliance.
“Our Monywa protest column will combine with the Pakokku column and then march from Pakokku through Chauk, Yenangyaung, Magway, Pyay [in Bago region] and finally to Yangon,” he said.
The combined columns plan to hold a protest rally in town for three days before proceeding to Yangon, the Irrawaddy reported.
The journal said that a group of students in Dawei, in Tanintharyi region, had planned a protest march on Thursday, while demonstrators in Rakhine and Mon states had announced plans to begin protests within a week.
The Irrawaddy Boycott Students’ Column, which began its march from Irrawaddy region’s Pathein city on Feb. 3, was greeted by more than 3,000 residents of Kyaunggon township on Wednesday and had planned to reach Pantanaw city a day later.
Voicing their difficulties
Chief minister of Irrawaddy region Thein Aung met with parents of students taking part in the Irrawaddy Boycott Students’ Column on Thursday in Pathein and urged them to persuade their children to end the march, a mother named San San Htay told RFA.
“He said that he can only be responsible for [preventing a crackdown on the] students within Irrawaddy region,” she said.
San San Htay said the protests began at a time when the students wanted to voice their difficulties and problems.
“That is why they joined the march … not because someone had incited them or manipulated them into doing so,” she said.
“I told [Thein Aung] that they went along with the march because they really wanted to express what they felt inside their hearts.”
After arriving in Pantanaw, the Irrawaddy Boycott Students’ Column plans to proceed to Nyaungdon, Maubin, Pyapon and Dedaye townships in Irrawaddy before joining the main boycott column from Mandalay in Yangon.
Reported by Khin Pyisone, Ma Zarni Tun and Ma San Maw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.