The Myanmar government agreed in principle on Wednesday in Yangon to all student demands concerning national education reform in the four-way talks with students, lawmakers and education advocates, according to an outspoken education reformer who is participating in the talks.
During the resumption of the four-party talks, government representatives and lawmakers agreed to include students and other education professionals in referendums and education law drafts, said Thein Lwin, a member of the Network for National Education Reform (NNER), an organization consisting of educational, political and religious groups, which is involved in the talks.
He said the two sides had also agreed to allow students to freely form unions.
“That is important in democratic changes in education,” he said.
Students have demanded changes in the country’s National Education Law, passed last September, which they say is too restrictive.
Hundreds of students and their supporters have been marching in protest from Mandalay in central Myanmar, as well as from other parts of the country, to the commercial capital Yangon in the south since Jan. 20.
“The main thing is to include students and teachers when writing future education laws,” Thein Lwin told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that the next step would be to draw up a bill that amends the National Education Law.
“All four groups will participate in this,” he said. “It will be submitted to the Hluttaw [parliament], and the students will continue with their march until there is an approval from the Hluttaw.”
‘Success for the students’
At Wednesday’s meeting, the parties involved expressed their opinion on each of students’ 11 demands and agreed on wording that was acceptable to all, Thein Lwin said.
“Generally speaking, all four groups agreed to the students' demands,” he said.
During the meeting, the government also agreed not to arrest students and their supporters who have participated in the reform movement, and abolished central control over the education system, he said.
“Since it means there's no central control, it is a success for the students, and also for those of us who want democratic changes to education,” he said.
Lawmakers also agreed to the students’ demand that the education budget be at least 20 percent of the national budget, but only in five years’ time, he said.
“This is the first time in my life where the students and the government got together to find a solution,” he said. “It was successful for the first time.”
As for the students’ demand for indigenous people in Myanmar to be able to freely learn their own languages, government representatives and lawmakers agreed to have an education system based on one's mother tongue, using three languages, he said.
“This is an important matter for the peace process,” Thein Lwin said, referring to the country’s efforts to reach a nationwide peace agreement among its many ethnic minority groups on Feb. 12, Myanmar’s Union Day.
“There will be better education since the children are going to be able to study in their own languages,” he said. “The indigenous people will be happy since they get to study in their own languages. It is helpful for peace.”
But Thein Lwin cautioned that if parliament reneged on what it has agreed to, the students would resume their protest.
“If the students are happy with the final amendments, they will accept the law and return to their classrooms,” he said. “It means that if the Hluttaw does not fulfill their demands, they will continue with their demonstrations.”
On again, off again
The Union government had agreed in late January to hold four-way talks with student demonstrators on Feb. 2 to discuss the controversial legislation, a decision that prompted students to agree to temporarily suspend their cross-country protest march.
At the meeting on Feb. 2, student leaders reached an agreement with the government on eight of their nine preconditions for further discussions on education reform and decided to convene the next day, according to local media reports.
President Thein Sein ordered the talks be postponed until after Feb. 12, because of “differences in the format and proceedings of the meetings,” according to a statement issued by the government, but the talks resumed a day earlier.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.