Authorities in Myanmar charged three student protest leaders on Wednesday with unlawful assembly for their role in demonstrating against the country’s controversial education law, as an upper house parliamentary committee concluded its reviews of the legislation.
Three student protest leaders—Min Lwin Oo, Thura Naing and Zin Maung Phyo from the Dawei Student Union— were charged under an unlawful assembly act at a court in Ye township, Mawlamyine district, in southern Myanmar’s Mon state.
“When we were in Mawlamyine in February, local residents asked us to tell them about National Education Law, and we explained it to them,” Min Lwin Oo told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We were charged because of it.”
On Tuesday, police in Maubin township in the Ayeyarwady region of southwestern Myanmar had charged three other protest leaders—Waiyan Aung, Aung Aung Kyaw and Aung Khanr—from the Irrawaddy student group with unlawful assembly.
“Authorities have said that they will not take action against those involved in protest,” university professor Waiyan Aung told RFA. “We have to be very careful about authorities’ promises. Even the Irrawaddy Division Authorities said at least four times that they would not stop the protest or take action against students who joined the protest.”
The same day, police in Letpadan, Bago region—the site of a violent police crackdown earlier this month on students, monks and residents who opposed the controversial education law—charged some locals under the unlawful assembly act, according to one resident who declined to be named.
“Nine local residents were charged under Article 18 [pertaining to unlawful assembly] by Letpadan police,” the person said. “Three people are on the run. Their trial has been set for March 19.”
Two education reform groups—the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) and the student-led Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE)—joined the parliamentary committee hearing this week to press for changes to the education law.
They urged lawmakers on Tuesday to intervene to free other protestors detained by police in the Letpadan incident.
Nearly 130 students and their supporters were arrested during the crackdown as they protested against what they say is an undemocratic education law that sharply curtails academic freedom.
Still holding others
So far, authorities have released 27 students and two reporters who were covering the event from Tharyarwaddy Prison, but are still holding others. The students have not been allowed to see their families and have been denied access to legal assistance.
“We are sad, because this hearing and the talks came about because of the student protests, and the students who protested were beaten and are now being detained,” Thein Lwin, chairman of the NNER, told RFA. “We want MPs from upper parliament to try to get all the detained students released.”
Chit Win Maung, an ACDE member said lawmakers responded to the groups’ request by saying that only the government could release the students, but that they would try to do this on an individual basis.
Several of the students who were released have requested that the government create a commission to investigate the seizure and disappearance of their belongings, including mobile phones, after they were arrested, Eleven Myanmar media group reported.
Having their say
The parliamentary committee, which met from March 5-17, had discussed 11 proposals submitted by the students and reformers, including revisions to the national curriculum and the right to form student unions.
During the hearing, the groups explained why they wrote the draft education law and why centralized control of the higher education system should be reduced, said Ye Zarni Tun, an ACDE member.
“We could explain what we want, and the draft law committee took full notes on what we said,” he said “We’re satisfied with the results of [the] hearing.”
Thein Lwin pointed out that in February when the parties involved agreed to hold four-way talks among government representatives, lawmakers, student leaders and education reform advocates, the education ministry appeared to back the students. But then the ministry changed its stance.
“When we discussed in four-party talks, the Ministry of Education was in it,” he said. “The [ministry] was also with all of us when we wrote the draft law. But the ministry attacked the draft law instead of protecting it. We talked about this during the hearing.”
The committee will write a report based on the hearing discussions and send it to the chairman of parliament, said Nan Lin, an ACDE member said Tuesday. Representatives from the Ministry of Education will go to parliament to discuss it.
“Our battle is not finished yet,” Nan Lin said. “If parliament’s decision is very different from what we want, we have to fight again. It will take some time to reform our country’s education system. I want to urge students and people to pay good attention to and participate in the education reform process.”
The upper house draft law committee will issue its findings on Friday, according to a report in The Irrawaddy online journal.
Reported by San Maw Aung, Win Naung Toe, Wai Yan Moe Myint, Thin Thiri, Khet Mar, Zarni Tun, and Pyone Moh Moh Zin of RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.