The Myanmar government agreed on Wednesday at a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw to hold four-party talks with student demonstrators to discuss controversial education reform legislation, a decision that prompted students to agree to suspend a cross-country protest march.
High-level government leaders, including education ministry officials, told students, who are protesting the new National Education Bill, that government delegates and lawmakers would hold discussions with student leaders and members of the National Network for Educational Reform (NNER), which consists of educational, political and religious organizations, to review the legislation.
The parties signed a formal agreement that the four-way talks would be held on Feb. 1 in the commercial capital Yangon, according to local media reports.
“In today's talks, we didn’t discuss anything,” one student who was not identified by name told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We were just given the promise that the four-party talks would be held.”
“Now we are on the road towards discussions,” the student added. “This is in accordance with a democratic system.”
At the meeting on Feb. 1, students will present their 11 demands, submitted by the NNER, which include free and compulsory middle-school education, the decentralization of decision-making power, the teaching of ethnic languages in their own mother tongues, and the lack of need for the National Educational Commission and the Higher Education Coordination Committee, said Arkar Moe Thu, an NNER member and chairman of the Dagon University Teachers’ Association.
“Right now, there are no elected persons, only appointed ones,” he said about those who run universities. “They are the ones who do as they are instructed from the top. That is like strengthening a slavish mentality. We only need rectors who will represent the students and the people.”
The students’ demands also include an increase in the national educational budget and permission to form student and teacher unions, according to local media reports.
Not difficult to resolve
“Everyone is hoping that most of it will be successfully resolved,” said Min Ko Naing, leader of the 88 Generation student group of veteran activists, who is supporting the protestors. “This will depend on discussing with patience on both sides. Whatever it is, just adopting the culture of finding solutions through discussions and meeting at the table is a very good example for everyone.”
Nyan Linn, spokesman of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, told RFA that the differences with regard to the educational system would not be difficult to resolve.
“They exist because they have not been discussed with sincerity,” he said. “Now, at this time, it is difficult for the students to back down.”
Yin Yin Nwe, leader of the presidential advisory team on education, said education experts agree that the system needs to be improved.
“Everybody agrees that the educational system must be made better again,” she said. “However, there are many weaknesses in the system now. Students want a better educational system just as we experts want one. That is why we drafted the National Education Law. But half of what we drafted was amended by the Hluttaw [parliament].”
But she said she differed with students in their call for immediate autonomy for higher education institutions.
“I believe that there must be a transitional period,” she said. “Otherwise, it will create disorder. Complete autonomy is not possible. There has to be some kind of centralized authority during the transition period. Even later we cannot completely eliminate centralization as evaluations can only be made by the central authority.”
T. Khun Myat, secretary of the legislature’s joint committee on drafting bills said it would be the education ministry’s responsibility to submit amendments to the legislation, which lawmakers would then discuss and submit the necessary changes.
In the meantime, hundreds of students, teachers and monks continued their 638-kilomater (400-mile) protest march from Mandalay to Yangon, which began on Jan. 20, but will temporarily stop demonstrating on Feb. 1 when the talks are held, local media reports said.
The students agreed Tuesday to the initial meeting with government officials when authorities granted them passage through Taungtha township after they were blocked earlier by police.
On Tuesday afternoon, education officials met with the legislature’s joint bill committee chairperson in Naypyidaw to discuss amending the legislation, according to a local media report.
The same day, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged the students to hold discussions with the government on the issue.
The National Education Bill was passed by parliament last July but returned by President 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.
Last November, hundreds of students held an unauthorized strike in Yangon calling for changes to the legislation.
They issued a 60-day moratorium and requested that a 15-member committee comprising students, government leaders, parliamentarians and the NNER discuss changes to the bill.
But after the government failed to hold the discussions, the students began a peaceful protest march last week.
Reported by Moe Thant Khine, Khet Mar, Khin Khin Ei, Kyaw Thu and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.