Education Advocates Feel Cheated by Last-Minute Amendments

By Nobel Zaw 2 April 2015

RANGOON — Education reform advocates on Wednesday denounced the current draft of an amended education law, passed by Burma’s Upper House of Parliament last week, claiming that it deviated from a version agreed upon by stakeholders.

The National Education Law, which was passed late last year, was met with protest by students, educators and other advocates. The government agreed to amend the legislation following negotiations with lawmakers, students and other advocates, who collectively agreed upon revisions in mid-February.

The version approved by the Upper House on March 26, however, was amended in ways that violated the agreement, according to the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a group involved in the education reform process and closely aligned with the student movement’s leading body, the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE).

The NNER said in a statement that the approved draft reverses an agreement about the formation of student and teacher unions, replaces a chapter safeguarding educational freedom with a chapter that establishes a national “strategic commission” backed by the government, and restores centralized control over curricula despite previous agreements that educational agendas would vary by state and region.

Regional variations were a central demand of the student movement because of Burma’s ethnically diverse population, which under military rule was given only the option of learning in the dominant Burmese language. The repression of minority languages caused severe disadvantages for many in ethnic states and regions.

The student movement also demanded a 20 percent increase in the national education budget over the course of the next five years, as well as nationwide free primary and secondary education. Neither of those provisions was included in the approved version, the NNER said.

Min Oo, an Upper House parliamentarian and member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), explained that lawmakers had to compromise some parts of the draft for the betterment of the country’s education system in the long run.

“When we consider the Education Law, we weren’t thinking only about satisfying the students, accommodating the NNER, or fawning the government. We thought about establishing a good education system for the next generation and for the future of the country,” he said.

An upper house committee tasked with revising the law led a number of parliamentary hearings in March that were meant to include members of the ACDE, but several student representatives were unable to attend because they had been jailed after a brutal police crackdown in Letpadan, central Burma, on a core group of protesters.

While the committee said in its report that it had reached agreement with negotiators before the amendments went to a vote, the NNER maintained that “the Upper House needs to clarify” how they could have reached agreement on the revisions with only a fraction of the stakeholders present.

Min Lwin Oo, a member of the ACDE and president of the Dawei Students Union, told The Irrawaddy that changes to the legislation must be discussed by all key members of the ACDE before they can be accepted.

“Six detained student members of the ACDE may disagree [with the revisions],” he said. “I demand that they be freed immediately, and that the ACDE can discuss this together.”