More than 100 students in Myanmar launched a protest march Tuesday against a controversial education bill that they say will curb academic freedoms, after the government failed to address demands for talks to amend the proposed legislation.
The march came as Myanmar’s parliament announced it would consider changes to the National Education Bill, which restricts the formation of student unions and creates a commission to oversee the country’s education system, based on a request by President Thein Sein.
Ko Ye Yint Kyaw, a spokesman for the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), said that his and other students groups had given the government a two-month moratorium since earlier protests to discuss their concerns over the bill, but had not been contacted for talks.
“We asked the government to meet and discuss [the bill] within 60 days, but the time limit has passed and since there has been no response, we have ratcheted up our protest efforts,” he said.
“Students from all over the country will be converging on [the commercial capital] Yangon where demonstrations will be held in conjunction with other protests staged in major cities such as Monywa, Mandalay and Mawlamyaing.”
The students plan to march 360 miles (580 kilometers) from central Myanmar’s Mandalay city to Yangon—passing through Kyaukse and Myingyan in Mandalay region, Pakokku and Magway in Magway region, and Pyay in Bago region—and make speeches at universities along the way.
Additional students from Magway’s Pakokku township plan to join the group during its march, while a second contingent of students from Dawei city in southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region also launched a 380-mile (615-kilometer) march Tuesday to Yangon. Both marches are expected to take around two weeks to complete.
The two groups are each holding an unauthorized protest, which is an arrestable offense in the former junta-led nation, but students said they were forced into action because of the government’s refusal to hear their grievances.
A student named Min Thwe Thit told Agence France-Presse that the groups were “not afraid of a crackdown.”
“We don't have any weapons, not even a needle, so if there is a crackdown we will just have to bow our heads and face it.”
In November, hundreds of students held an unauthorized four-day strike in Yangon calling for amendments to the National Education Bill, which authorities appeared reluctant to shut down.
On Nov. 17, the students called for a 60-day moratorium and requested the establishment of a 15-member committee comprising students, government leaders, parliamentarians and the National Network for Education Reform to discuss changes to the bill.
Amendments to the draft law proposed by students include a guarantee for the establishment of student and teacher unions independent of the government, changes to exam and entrance requirements at universities, the introduction of ethnic languages, and a modernization of the national syllabus.
Parliament to review law
On Tuesday, parliament speaker Shwe Mann announced that the committee which drafted the education law would be tasked with reassessing it following a request from Thein Sein.
“[Parliament], as well as those departments concerned, must work in concert and coordination to reassess the National Education Bill that has been passed,” Shwe Mann told lawmakers.
“That is why the … legislative drafting committee has been given the responsibility to reassess and reconsider in accordance with those points mentioned in the memorandum sent by the President.”
Thein Sein’s memorandum included calls for the formation of student and teacher organizations, the reduction of centralized control, setting up a “comprehensive and inclusive” education system and allowing ethnic languages to be taught.
It also suggested eliminating the formation of a government body called the National Education Commission, which would oversee education policies on a national level.
The National Education Bill was passed by parliament in July but sent back by 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.
Myanmar’s education system is still recovering from decades of neglect under military rule, when the government clamped down on academic independence and freedom because the ruling generals viewed the nation’s universities with suspicion.
Reported by Ko Nay Thwe, Ko Set Paing Toe and Ko Myo Thant Khine. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.