Backlash Grows Against Burma’s National Education Bill

By Yen Saning 23 September 2014

RANGOON — More than 200 civil society organizations have joined a national network of education organizations and a growing chorus of voices in rejecting a draft National Education Bill that looks likely to soon pass into law.

The National Network for Education Reform (NNER), which came out against the bill after it was passed by Parliament in late July, was joined this week by a diverse coalition of groups opposing the legislation because they say it violates “human rights standards.”

Aung Myo Min of Equality Myanmar, one of the groups against the bill,said that additionally, it had failed to incorporate community-based organizations’ suggestions.

“Analyzing the bill, we have noticed that the National Education Bill has included [policies] that are not in keeping with the will of community-based organization,” the Equality Myanmar director told The Irrawaddy.

“As a human rights activist, [I have] found that it’s a little bit slack on human rights standards, so we’ve taken a stand in favor of changes,” he said.

The National Education Bill was approved by the Union Parliament on July 30. It has been sent back to Parliament by President Thein Sein, who suggested 25 changes to the legislation, among them that full implementation of reforms be postponed until 2027. Parliament’s bill requires full implementation of the law within five years of its passage.

The legislation is expected to be up for discussion again during the current session of Parliament, but a date for deliberations has not yet been announced.

According to the Constitution, Burma’s president can offer input on bills approved by Parliament within 14 days of the legislation’s passage. However, he cannot prevent the bill from becoming law once a final version is resent by the legislature, and becomes law seven days after it is returned to his desk, with or without his signature.

The NNER’s push for a rethink of the current bill is futile, however, according to Myat Nyarna Soe, secretary of the Upper House’s Education Development Committee. The National League for Democracy lawmaker said parliamentary procedure only allowed for MPs to accept the president’s recommended changes or send back the original draft that was sent to Thein Sein in July. Lawmakers can, however, revisit the “mother law” once it is passed to consider amendments, he added, while downplaying concerns about a lack of guaranteed autonomy for institutions of higher learning in the bill.

The NNER says the bill differs from the network’s recommended policies for education reform, which were the outcome of seminars it held across the country over the last two years.

In a statement released in August, the network said it strongly disagreed with nine major points in the bill, including the formation of a “National Education Commission” and “Higher Education Coordinating Committee,” which NNER fears will limit universities’ autonomy.

The network has called for the granting of greater autonomy to universities and colleges and the implementation of mother tongue-based multilingual education, as well as stronger guarantees of the right to association and free speech.

“The right to education is a human right,” Aung Myo Min said on Tuesday, adding that he was seeking a provision in the law guaranteeing a baseline level of spending from the state budget on education.

“We have seen discrimination against children with disabilities and the right to language and culture for ethnic children. And the right to association is also a human right.”

Khon Ja, a leading activist with the Rangoon-based Kachin Peace Network, also emphasized the importance of stronger mother tongue provisions in any overhaul of the primary education system.

“We would like to point out children’s right to learn in their mother tongue in the first two years of primary school. If a Karen child, for example, has to learn math in Burmese, it’s like a Burmese learning math in French or Pali [Sanskrit]. The result is that children in ethnic areas have higher drop-out rates, according to Unicef research.”