Despite Increased Police Presence, Student Protesters Continue March to Rangoon

By Yen Saning 9 February 2015

RANGOON — Students demonstrating against the National Education Law in several locations across Burma’s south are continuing their march to Rangoon, despite an ominous increase in the presence of security forces along protest routes.

Around 400 police have been deployed to the Irrawaddy Division town of Dedaye, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from the center of Rangoon. A protest group that set out from Pathein on Feb. 3 are now to the northwest in the town of Ma-ubin, where 200 students held protests at three local universities. The group is planning to detour through the south of the division through Kyaiklat and Pyapon and are expecting to arrive in Dedaye on Friday.

“If they shoot, we will be hit,” Kyaw Thet, one of the members of the protest’s coordinating committee, told The Irrawaddy. “We have no plans to back down, but we want to say there is no benefit to anyone if violence is used against students. If government agrees to our demands, we will call off our strike and go home.”

Participants in the Irrawaddy Division march called for peaceful negotiations between the police force and students in the event of a possible confrontation. An officer from the divisional police force told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the police officers had been deployed to provide security, but not to obstruct the protest.

To the east, a protest column traveling from Dawei arrived in Moulmein to join with a local group of students, awaiting the arrival of demonstrators from Pa-an before continuing the journey to Rangoon.

The Dawei group was greeted upon their arrival by representatives of the Mon National Party and Moulmein locals. Min Lwin Oo, one of student protesters from Dawei, said the group would hold talks with local organizations and march the streets of Moulmein today with the assistance of a Moulmein student union.

Students in Moulmein have yet to decide when to embark upon the 300-kilometer (186-mile) trek to Rangoon and expect a decision to be made in the coming days, based on the progress of other protest groups towards the commercial capital. The original student demonstration departing from Mandalay on Jan. 20, now comprising a core group of about 100 people, crossed into Bago Division on Monday and will spend the evening in the town of Prome, 270 kilometers (168 miles) from Rangoon.

About 30 police officers were posted on the border between Magwe and Bago Divisions, but the duty officer told The Irrawaddy that they had not been deployed to impede the march, and the students proceeded into Prome without incident. The marchers received a warm reception on the outskirts of the town, with a group of locals standing ready with bags of watermelon slices to donate to members of the procession.

In recent days, official denunciations of the protests have become increasingly strident. On Friday, students defied a broadcast carried on state-run television warning students to cease their activities. In interview aired on Saturday evening, Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko questioned the legitimacy of the demonstrators, accusing the protests of being masterminded by “ex-political hardliners” and foreign organizations.

Meanwhile the National League for Democracy (NLD) has issued a statement announcing the suspension of Dr. Thein Lwin from the party’s central executive committee. Thein Lwin, a spokesman for the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), had attended a meeting on Feb. 1 between students, government ministers, lawmakers and the NNER to discuss reform to the National Education Law. The NLD prohibits involvement in independent political organizations, which Thein Lwin had not sought before the meeting.

“Thein Lwin’s central committee membership has been suspended due to his breaking the party rules and not following restrictions,” the statement read.

On Feb. 2, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported that NLD chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi personally disapproved of Thein Lwin’s participation in the meeting on the grounds that his actions could be interpreted as representative of party policy.