The Myanmar government postponed four-party talks on education reform because it does not want to give equal rights to student representatives involved in the negotiations and seeks to end the discussions, an outspoken education reformer said on Tuesday, as students also accused officials of bad faith.
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 with students, lawmakers and government officials, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the government prevented support staff and media from accompanying students and NNER members to the negotiations venue in Naypyidaw on Tuesday.
The government said there was not enough room in the meeting hall for the staff of the students who are seeking amendments to the National Education Law, passed last September.
“We asked that the talks be conducted in a transparent manner, and therefore [they should] allow the support staff to be given permission to enter,” Thein Lwin said. “There were back-and-forth discussions, wasting time. In the end, they said the talks would only be held after Feb. 12.
“In analyzing this turn of events, we concluded that they wanted to stop the talks, because since last night they have made it difficult for us. Even if that is OK, they should not have stopped us from entering.”
The government also had said student representatives could spend Monday night at a municipal hostel before the second day of talks, but reneged after they arrived, forcing them to sleep in their cars, The Irrawaddy online journal reported.
Drawing a comparison, Thein Lwin added that the support staff of the Myanmar Peace Center was allowed to enter the same venue for negotiations during previous nationwide peace talks in Yangon.
“But since they [NNER’s and students’ support staff] were not allowed to enter it means that we have not been given equal rights,” he said. “That is why we believe that the government side does not want to give equal rights in these talks.”
Nyo Nyo Thin, an opposition lawmaker who represents the Yangon division, told RFA that the government and parliament had more support staff attend the meeting than did the students and NNER.
But she said it was not the fault of the students and NNER that the talks broke down and urged Thein Sein to resume them as initially agreed upon.
Government at fault
Some of the student marchers also believe that the government does not want to continue the talks.
“Refusing some of the students from entering the talks shows that the government has had no desire right from the beginning to hold talks and not allowing the media shows it only wants talks without people from the outside “present],” said Min Thway Thit, a representative of the Action Committee for Democratic Education, a 15-member student alliance.
Aung Aung Kyaw, a student who is leading the Irrawaddy column of protestors marching to Yangon, said it was evident that the government had planned to disrupt the talks.
“The students had trusted the government and had acted with total sincerity thinking it would not be so manipulative,” he said. “But the government has been continuing its past tradition of being insincere.”
The Union government agreed last week 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 a cross-country protest march.
Hundreds of students started marching on Jan. 20 from central Myanmar’s Mandalay to the southern commercial capital Yangon to protest the legislation’s centralized control of the curriculum, ban of student and teacher unions, and lack of education spending increases.
At the meeting on Monday, the student leaders reached an agreement with the government on eight of its nine preconditions for further discussions on education reform and to meet again on Tuesday, local media reports said.
But President Thein Sein ordered the talks among student leaders, government representatives, lawmakers and education advocates 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.
The Union government wants to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement with armed ethnic rebel groups on that date in Naypyidaw.
But local media reports said the president delayed the continuation of the talks so the government could determine whether student leaders truly represented their constituency, prompting students to resume their march.
“Talks are now uncertain,” Thein Lwin said. “If the students continue to demonstrate, what do you think that could lead to?”
Coming under fire
Thein Lwin, who is also a member of the central executive committee of the opposition National League of Democracy (NLD) party, has also come under fire from chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi for violating party rules that require prior approval for involvement in outside organizations such as the NNER.
“I see that the request made by the students for me to get involved is a correct one,” Thein Lwin said.
“They have a strong desire for educational reform. Their demands are reasonable. The NNER also wants educational reform. Therefore, I think that it is appropriate for us to provide assistance.”
The NLD warned it may take legal against Thein Lwin for violating party rules because he did not receive such permission to get involved in the four-way talks on behalf of the NNER.
“If getting involved in this manner is not in accordance with the rules and regulations of the NLD, and if action is taken, I am ready to face the consequences because I am a party member,” Thein Lwin said.
Students, who had invited Thein Lwin to participate as an education expert and not as an NLD representative, shot back on Monday, saying that the party’s opposition to the education expert’s participation could disrupt the talks at a critical time, according to a Mizzima report.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.