Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘We Cannot Accept the National Education Law’

By The Irrawaddy 23 April 2016

Thalun Zaung Htet: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the student protestors, who were released following President Htin Kyaw’s presidential pardon, and their expectations for the country’s education system, with Phyoe Phyoe Aung, general secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) central work committee, and Nan Linn, a university student union leader. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Thalun Zaung Htet.

First of all, I’m happy that students, including you, were released on April 8. Everyone was happy that day. But after the release, we saw statements on social media from the released student protestors, including you, which said the protest had not been called off because 11 demands remained unfulfilled. This drew critical comments on social media like “if students want to go back behind bars [they should say so],” and other similar criticisms. Why haven’t the student protestors called off the demonstration?

Phyoe Phyoe Aung: Throughout the year while we were on trial, especially after there was speculation that Aung San Suu Kyi would become education minister, we explained the student protests [against the National Education Law] whenever we gave interviews. Those 11 demands are what the students wish for, which they expressed at the students’ conference in November 2014. We cannot accept the National Education Law, which was drafted and approved by the [former] government and Parliament. It is over-centralized and would be an obstacle to the development of a democratic education system in our country. Therefore, students unanimously decided to protest that law. The protest depends on whether or not their demands are met. The decision [to call off the protest] cannot be made by an individual person or organization. In our understanding, it is the nature of a protest to end automatically once demands are met. People failed to take note of what we have continuously said, but many have taken notice of news that has spread on social media about the protest continuing and students taking to the streets. Lately, we have explained [the law and our demands] comprehensively through interviews and statements.

TZH: Nan Linn, the National Education Law was enacted in 2014 and [former President] Thein Sein made some amendments to the law in 2015. How much does the existing education law meet the demands of students? Does the law still need to be changed?

Nan Linn: Surely, it needs to be changed. We pressed for 11 demands. Some have been met and some have not. And others are only nominally met.

TZH: Can you tell me what the 11 demands are?

NL: Roughly, they are about the education budget, ethnic languages, restructuring student unions and changing the university admission system for matriculating students.

TZH: Which demands have been met and which have not?

NL: The law unexpectedly includes provisions about student unions. [An article] of the law provides the formation of student unions at respective universities. The law also touches on ethnic languages and introduces changes to structure and power within the National Education Commission. But, taking a deeper look into its essence, it has yet to pave the way for the implementation of these provisions. Although the law includes so and so provisions, those provisions still need to clear legal barriers to pave the way for educational reforms. If you take a closer look, you will see restrictions behind those provisions.

TZH: So, you mean the National Education Law is not a driving force for promoting education, but rather a tool to make sure the education system is under government control?

NL: Sure, it is.

TZH: The National Education Law formed the National Education Commission and the Higher Education Coordinating Committee. Phyoe Phyoe Aung has said that the law is over-centralized. Does the country’s education system even need the National Education Commission and the Higher Education Coordinating Committee?

PPA: We attended the student representatives’ discussions with scholars. Generally, I think we do need to form a body of independent scholars to shape policies, manage funds and monitor the quality of universities and schools. But if that organization is under the influence of the government, the government will retain control. It will be a question of the ratio [of government representatives in the body]. It is reasonable that it will include government representatives because the government provides funds. But if the ratio of government representatives is unreasonably large, it will not be an independent entity. This concerns us. Regarding the coordinating committee, if universities become independent and have autonomy, they will be able to coordinate with other universities, either local or international ones. Then, universities can act freely. But if law forms an unnecessary committee, a committee for show—our country used to have many committees and organizations for show—it might not work at all. If possible, we prefer that universities have autonomy and can coordinate with other universities as they wish.

TZH: So, you mean the existing National Education Law is over-centralized and needs to be decentralized?

PPA: Because the first National Education Law that passed was over-centralized, we continuously pressed for our demands. We staged protests as a last resort, after negotiations had failed. In response, the government introduced some changes to the law. It has been decentralized to a certain extent, for example, the ratio, as Nan Linn has said. The proportion [of government representatives] has been reduced in the National Education Commission. But still, there remains a certain extent of centralization in the law.

TZH: The National League for Democracy (NLD) government is in power, as we voted for it in the poll last November. The NLD is leading both the government and Parliament. Nan Linn, to what extent are the students prepared to negotiate with the current government and Parliament? Will students continue to press for their demands? I ask this question because you said you have not called off the protest. As far as Burmese people understand, a protest means taking to the streets and shouting slogans. How will you continue to press for your demands?

NL: We staged the protest against the National Education Law, which was one-sidedly approved by Thein Sein’s government, because that law was unacceptable and over-centralized. As a manner of protest, we took to the streets. As Phyoe Phyoe Aung said, we have not called off the protest. There will be different ways and means to continue making changes to the law. Will we negotiate with the government? Will we rewrite the National Education Law or change sections of it? How much will we be able to work with the new government? [Calling off the protest] depends on these factors. We want to choose how we negotiate. We are still staging the protest against the National Education Law, but we want to settle this through negotiation. As you said, the NLD is the people’s government, elected by the people. We hope that they know what students and people want, and what is best in order to guarantee democratic education reforms. We hope to work out an agreement with them.

TZH: The incumbent Education Minister Myo Thein Gyi served as the rector of University of West Yangon. He served as the government representative during talks with students about the National Education Law. We heard feedback from students and teachers that they do not like him much. You have spoken with Myo Thein Gyi. Do you think he will be able to create the National Education Law you want?

PPA: I have not yet talked directly with Myo Thein Gyi but we know some things about him, such as the alleged discord during the NNER [National Network for Education Reform] meeting in Naypyidaw. I don’t know about his personal life. But I am sure that the education circle—especially teachers, education staff, and some of the students who have engaged with him—are not very satisfied with him. I am also not quite satisfied with him. He is one of those people who took a lead role implementing the education reform policy of the previous government. The NLD has its own education policy, and I am concerned how he would do with the two different policies. I am concerned that his education reform is just a duplication of the former government’s plan. I’m concerned that it will deviate from the education reforms aspired to by the NLD government and the people because he has the power as the education minister. But if Aung San Suu Kyi can handle Myo Thein Gyi, we will be able to have some relief. Education is instrumental in the country’s reforms. Once the education system of a country is changed, the future of that country will change a lot. We prefer an education minister who is dedicated and can fix the system. It is best if Myo Thein Gyi takes the lead role in education reform but keeps the door open [for students to negotiate].

TZH: Education is of fundamental importance for the development of a country. There are many countries that have achieved development by improving their education systems. One example is Singapore, in Southeast Asia. It has no resources but it built itself through excellence in education. Education is extremely important. The future of our country’s education now depends on the policies of the NLD government. Phyoe Phyoe Aung, Nan Linn, thank you.