RANGOON — Burma’s government postponed quadripartite talks on education reform that were due to recommence in Naypyidaw on Tuesday after questioning whether student participants truly represented their fellow protesters.
Upon an order from the president, the talks between the government, lawmakers, education advocates and student representatives were postponed until after Feb. 12, with the government claiming they will be busy preparing for a meeting with ethnic leaders in Naypyidaw on this date during which they hope to conclude a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Student demonstrators reached an eight-point agreement during talks with educational and political stakeholders in Rangoon on Sunday, outlining pre-conditions for further discussion of education reforms. A formal agreement was signed by participants that the talks would continue in Naypyidaw on Feb. 3—a pledge now broken.
Banya Aung Moe, an Upper House lawmaker from Mon State, told The Irrawaddy that there was uncertainty about how many representatives would attend the four-party talks, and which groups they represented.
“The president’s order to postpone the talks came because there are many things that need to be done [in the coming] days,” he said.
According to Ye Paing Thu, a member of the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE), the government called on all student protest groups to convene in Rangoon and prove that the 15-member committee participating in the talks is representative of the student protesters.
“The government questioned whether we really represented the protesting students and asked for a recommendation letter from the students,” Ye Paing Thu said.
Widespread student demonstrations against the National Education Law gained traction after the legislation was passed by parliament in September 2014. Critics of the law contend that it centralizes authority, restricts the formation of student and teacher unions and curbs curricular freedoms.
On Jan. 20, hundreds of students set out on a march from Mandalay to Rangoon to protest the law, with the government eventually acceding to their demands for dialogue.
At a press conference convened by students and the Network for National Education Reform (NNER) in Naypyidaw on Tuesday, Thein Lwin of the NNER defended his role in the group after the National League for Democracy—where he serves as a central executive committee member—warned on Monday that it may take legal action against him for violating party rules.
President’s Office Minister Aung Min reportedly quizzed the NNER representative over the issue on Tuesday.
“It is a problem between me and the party [the NLD],” Thein Lwin said. “I will stay in the NNER and I will continue [to work] together with the students. Negotiating to find answers is the best way for reforming education. But I am not satisfied that the meeting has been postponed.”
He added that the NNER was made up of different groups, including NGOs, political and advocacy organizations, and was simply trying to push for education reform.
Students due to attend the meeting on Tuesday said they arrived in Naypyidaw at 2am and were forced to sleep in their cars after the government reneged on an earlier promise that they could stay in the Municipal Hostel.
Before the postponement was announced, students had contested the government’s decision to only allow 15 student representatives to participate in the meeting.
President’s Office Director Zaw Htay wrote on his Facebook page that government and parliamentary representatives had waited from 9am until noon on Tuesday, but there was disagreement over the framework of the meeting.
“To make sure of the representatives is important,” he wrote. “[Even] if the government fulfills the demands of the students’ committee, the protests may continue and we are afraid the committee is not related to the protesting students.”
Min Thwe Thit, a member of ACDE, said “Today the government postponed the meeting without our agreement so we will continue the protests that had halted for the meeting and [now] increase our protests.”
There are at least six separate student protest groups that plan to converge on Rangoon, including the marchers that began in Mandalay and a group of university and high school students that are marching from Pathein in Irrawaddy Division.