Hundreds of Myanmar students on Monday held a fourth consecutive day of protests against a new education law they say will limit academic freedom, as the leader of a prominent democracy group called for the government to open new talks with the demonstrators.
The students marched through the commercial capital Yangon to City Hall, where they displayed signs and shouted slogans calling for amendments to the National Education Law, which restricts the formation of student unions and creates a commission to oversee the country’s education system.
Phyo Aung of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), one of the protest organizers, said the government should not be given “complete control” over the education sector.
“We think the student union should be given a role to play,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service during the protests.
“We issued a list of our demands a long time ago, and the government can’t say it doesn’t know what we want.”
A student named Phone Nyat Moe, who was among the protesters at City Hall on Monday, said the law goes against democratic reforms championed by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration, which took power from the former military junta in 2011.
“Forming a commission that wields power over the education system and writes the syllabus is not democratic,” he said. “We want a self-governed university education.”
Monday’s march was the fourth to be held without official approval, and the students risked arrest for holding an illegal protest, though authorities did not interfere.
According to local media, students released a statement on Monday saying that if the government failed to negotiate with them within 60 days, they would “increase our protest strength” and hold nationwide demonstrations.
A day earlier, protesters had held a demonstration at the eastern gate of Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave her first public speech in 1988 and Buddhist monks launched anti-government protests in 2007.
The protesters met with officials from the Ministry of Education, which drafted the law, and university professors, but were unable to come to any agreement on what should be done with the controversial legislation.
Call for further talks
On Monday, Jimmy Kyaw Min Yu, a leader of Myanmar’s influential 88 Generation Students pro-democracy movement, called for further talks and vowed to continue protests until student demands to amend the law were met.
“The National Education Law has to be amended now,” he said, echoing calls by the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) to change the principles of the legislation.
“Generation 88 has participated in all of NNER’s actions … We can help them by staging separate demonstrations, and will continue to do so.”
The National Education Law 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 law again in September, approving 19 of the president’s amendments and rejecting six.
The NNER, an independent body of academics and educators that was formed to oversee the school reform process and has held nationwide talks over the past two years on education reform, rejected the New Education Law in August for excluding many of its key recommendations.
Among the NNER’s complaints about the bill are that it ignores calls for local languages to be used in instruction in ethnic states, is discriminatory in articles dealing with special-needs children, and provides a definition of higher education that harkens back to the country’s authoritarian regime, according to The Irrawaddy online journal.
The NNER has recommended that the Ministry of Education be a “facilitator” and leave school management to respective school boards, which include principals, teachers, parents, and respectable citizens.
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.
Protests against the National Education Law began on Friday, as U.S. President Barack Obama met with young Southeast Asia leaders in Yangon University during his three-day visit to Myanmar.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Choe Sett. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.