Students and their supporters in Myanmar have staged a sit-in and threatened to go on a hunger strike as police block them from continuing a march to the commercial capital Yangon, protesting the country’s controversial education law, the leader of a student federation said.
The students undertook the action on Tuesday, after riot police outside a monastery in the town of Letpadan, about 140 kilometers (86 miles) north of Yangon, formed a human chain around 150 protestors, while their supporters and parents in major cities urged authorities to avoid a violent crackdown on the students.
Police had given the students a 4 p.m. deadline to disperse before they took action against them, but it passed without incident.
“We have asked the authorities to let us march to Tharawaddy,” Kyaw Ko Ko, president of the All Burma Federation of Students Union, said, referring to the district of the Bago Division in lower Myanmar.
“We will [then] go to Yangon by cars and will go home from Yangon. If they don’t let us do it, we will sit here and go on a hunger strike. If they attack or crack down us, we won’t respond.”
The students have camped outside the Aung Myay Baik Mann Monastery since they suspended their march last week following negotiations with the government.
They have demanded eight points, including freedom to go to their next destination shouting slogans and then continuing on to Yangon by car, flying their fighting peacock flag on the cars, and going to monuments in Yangon for a final protest, according to news reports.
Col. Thet Htun, Bago security and border affairs minister, met with some student leaders on Tuesday to try to discuss their points and defuse the situation, Kyaw Ko Ko said.
“We already told them we will halt our march and will be waiting for the result from parliament in Yangon,” Kyaw Ko Ko said.
“We can’t guarantee whether there would be an uprising around the country or not if they crack down our marching protest. If so, it’s the government’s responsibility.”
The government has offered to hold discussions with the students and is considering changing the education reform legislation, but warned them not to hold rallies in Yangon.
Hearings on the legislation are scheduled for later this week, according to a Mizzima report that cited parliamentary officials as the source.
Calls for a peaceful solution
In the meantime, supporters of the students, including activists, parents of protesting students and civil society representatives have gathered in Mandalay, Monywa, Pakokku and Yangon, calling for a peaceful solution.
“We, students don’t have any weapons,” said Naing Htut Oo of the Monywa University Student’s Network. “We don’t want any power or position. We just want to amend our country’s education law to have a better education system.
“Authorities are making rude and unfair responses to students in Letpadan. We’re protesting today and asking authorities to stop preventing the students from going to Yangon.”
Tin Oo, deputy leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, said a solution would come about if students and authorities held further discussions and exercised patience and transparency.
“As the students said, government authorities have to work on this issue as soon as possible because high school exams are now over,” he said. “If they can’t solve this problem on time, the democracy process will be backward.”
Some parliamentarians echoed the sentiment.
“Parliament has a responsibility to amend the education law and issue the new law that students have asked for as soon as possible,” said Aye Maung, a lawmaker from the Arakan National Party.
But others urged the students to be patient until lawmakers further discussed the matter.
Khin Maung Swe, leader of the National Democratic Force party, pointed out that lawmakers had discussed the students’ demands to create a draft law in parliament, but students should wait until they hold further discussions.
“We already support students’ protest to amend the education law, but it has a limitation,” he said. “They need to wait for the result because the parliamentary process is still ongoing.”
March across the country
Hundreds of students began a 644-kilometer (400-mile) march on January 20 from central Myanmar’s Mandalay to protest the controversial education law, passed last September, which they say restricts academic freedom.
Many monks and ordinary citizens joined them along the way to help them demand the decentralization of the education system, changes to university entrance exam requirements, modernization of the national syllabus, the right to form student unions, and instruction in the country’s ethnic minority languages.
The Myanmar government agreed in principle in February to all student demands concerning national education reform in four-way talks with students, lawmakers and education advocates, although parliament has not yet approved the changes to the legislation.
At the time, government representatives and lawmakers also agreed to include students and other education professionals in referendums and education law drafts.
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Zarni Tun, Kyaw Tun Naing, Khin Khin Ei and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.