Marching Student Protestors Pause for Exams

By Nobel Zaw 19 February 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s main column of student protestors has announced that they will stay in the town of Letpadan in Pegu Division until March 1, with the young activists pausing their march to Rangoon because primary and secondary schools are due to hold exams later this month.

The decision was made on Wednesday after a meeting of students involved in the protest against a controversial National Education Law.

Nanda Sit Aung, a protest leader, told The Irrawaddy that in addition to the exams, “we want to wait to see how the Parliament handles [amendments to the National Education Law],” referring to a pledge by lawmakers to make key changes to the legislation.

The main student protest group began their 400-mile march from Mandalay to the commercial capital on Jan. 20. Letpadan lies some 85 miles northwest of Rangoon.

Separate student groups from Dawei, Moulmein and Irrawaddy Division announced on Monday that they would cease their demonstrations and return home in anticipation of a revised education law. Sister protests to the Mandalay-to-Rangoon group, the students had planned to converge on Rangoon in opposition to the legislation.

There are about 180 core protestors in Letpadan town. Surrounding towns and villages have pledged to provide meals to the students while they wait out the exams period.

“We are allowing time for the government to solve the problems according to a democratic system and if the government takes that chance to perpetrate violence against us, they will have to take responsibility for their behavior,” said Nanda Sit Aung, a member of the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE) spearheading the protest movement.

A draft revision of the National Education Law was submitted to Parliament on Monday, but lawmakers have yet to begin deliberations on the legislation.

Over the weekend lawmakers and the administration of President Thein Sein met with students and other groups pushing for changes to the law. The government agreed in principle to 11 amendments, including decentralizing and expanding access to the education system and native language instruction in ethnic minority regions.

On Thursday, state-media put out a call for additional input: “Public advice invited for amendment bill of national education law,” read a headline in the Global New Light of Myanmar daily, which provided email addresses and the relevant parliamentary committees to whom suggestions could be directed.

The protest students say if the government does not approve the bill by March 1, they will continue their march to Rangoon, potentially setting the stage for a confrontation with the government. The Ministry of Information said last week that “for the sake of the country’s security, rule of law and to maintain regional peace,” the protesters would not be permitted to enter the city. “Actions in accordance with the law” would be taken if they pushed ahead with their plan to assemble in the commercial capital, the ministry said.

But even the legislature’s acquiescence to student demands appears unlikely to prevent a showdown with Rangoon authorities.

“Most of the protest students live in Rangoon and if Parliament approves [amendments to the law], we will change our march into a celebration march to Rangoon,” Phyo Phyo Aung, a member of the ACDE, told The Irrawaddy.