RANGOON — The chairman of Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) has warned an alliance of ethnic political parties not to butt heads with the government, after the group released a statement backing student protesters in their push to amend the National Education Law.
The United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) released its statement of support on Feb. 19 following a three-day UNA conference in Rangoon involving seven of the alliance’s eight political parties, eight ethnic armed groups, seven civil society organizations and 18 non-UNA political parties.
In its statement, the alliance urged the government to immediately implement the student protesters’ demands for 11 amendments to the National Education Law, changes that the government has agreed to in principle. The statement also urged the government not to use violence to disperse student protestors who have been marching to Rangoon from Mandalay since Jan. 20.
The students have vowed to march to Rangoon regardless of whether their demands are met, while the government has warned that it will take “actions in accordance with the law” if the students attempt to enter the city. Protestors have temporarily suspended their march in Letpadan, Pegu Division, about 85 miles northwest of Rangoon, and have said they will continue the walk on March 1.
The UEC chairman, Tin Aye, met with the UNA on Monday in Rangoon.
“The chairman told us he called [the meeting] to tell the UNA and its allied parties that our approach should not go against the government’s approach—which is going gently and peacefully—and not to oppose that approach,” said Aye Thar Aung, leader of the Arakan National Party (ANP), who attended the meeting.
He said the chairman told the UNA representatives that political parties should cooperate with the government to resolve some of the country’s numerous problems, from land and labor rights to the student protests and a contentious debate over voting rights for non-citizens. The government, Tin Aye was quoted as saying, is doing its best to address the issues.
Aye Thar Aung said the commission chairman inquired about the aim and outcomes of the UNA-led conference held from Feb. 17-19.
“The conference was the second time. We held the first conference last year in December. After the first, the commission didn’t call us to ask about it. But this time, I think they focused on communicating [their concerns] about the students’ protest over the National Education Law,” he said.
“The chairman said the student issue is quite sensitive and so to handle it with the great care.”
This week’s remarks are not the first time the UEC chairman has attempted to discourage dissenting voices: They come about two months after he controversially warned that “instability” in Burma could see the military stage another coup.
And in May 2014, the UEC claimed that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) were violating her oath as a parliamentarian and contravening constitutional rules for political parties by “challenging the army” in pushing for amendments to the Constitution.
The national elections, slated for late October or early November of this year, are seen as a major barometer of the country’s democratic reforms and Tin Aye’s handling of the vote has come in for extra scrutiny due to his former ties to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The former general and ex-USDP lawmaker officially renounced his party affiliation after he was appointed to the UEC post by President Thein Sein in 2011.
Ko Ko, chairman of Rangoon’s UEC chapter, said the commission this week was simply seeking to “remind” the UNA to abide by the law as elections approach.
“The UNA held the meeting and released a statement a few days ago. We don’t blame them for holding their meeting. But we have a duty to remind, so we called them and told them to respect and follow the Election Law and the Political Parties Registration Law,” said Ko Ko, who also attended Monday’s meeting.
Additional reporting by Khin Oo Tha and Zue Zue.