RANGOON — Burma’s Union Parliament passed a controversial bill amending the National Education Law on Thursday but failed to honor several commitments that lawmakers had made with student activists earlier this year.
The amendment bill cleared the combined legislature after 51 disagreements between lawmakers in the Upper and Lower chambers of Parliament were bridged.
Student groups, teachers’ federations and a group of pro-reform advocates known as the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) had all opposed a first iteration of the National Education Law, which was passed by Parliament on Sept. 30, 2014.
In the months since, students and education reform advocates have railed against the legislation, which they say gives the central government too much control over the nation’s education system. A series of protests across Burma in support of amending the law ended in violence on March 10 when about 200 student activists and their supporters became victims of a brutal police crackdown in Letpadan, Pegu Division.
Some 80 students and supporters remain in jail awaiting the verdict of an ongoing trial for illegally protesting at Letpadan.
Less than a month prior, student leaders pushing for education reform and backed by the NNER met with lawmakers and the government to negotiate amendments to the law. That meeting ended with the students ostensibly emerging victorious in their reform push, winning agreement on all 11 demands they presented.
However, Parliament’s amendments to the law have not met several of the students’ demands, which broadly called for a more democratic education system, stronger protections for student unions and a guarantee of greater state spending on education.
Some amendments are likely to get at least tepid approval from reformists, such as a budget provision that was included in the Lower House’s version of the law. It states that the government is “to set a target to use 20 percent of the state budget for education spending,” while no timeframe was given for reaching that figure. The outcome of the four-party negotiations was to achieve the one-fifth of total spending allocation within five years.
The provision in the Upper House amendment bill was “to annually increase the state’s education spending to a suitable percentage within five years.”
Thein Lwin of the NNER said the amended law had failed to honor nearly all of the agreements that were reached when the four-party dialogue was convened in February to discuss the issue.
“…Our conference has pointed out that education reform must continue,” Thein Lwin said on Friday, a day after the NNER’s second annual national conference on education, which issued a call for the immediate release of the 80 detained students and their supporters and implementation of the 11 demands agreed at the four-party dialogue.
“What we, the NNER and students, have asked for is to let student union representatives be involved in university councils. Also to include the right to freely form student unions in the Education Law.”
Under the law passed Thursday, student unions’ rights and restrictions are to be determined by individual universities’ charters, according to lawmaker Mya Oo, secretary of Parliament’s Education Upgrading Committee.
Thein Lwin argued for broader certainty for student unions nationwide.
“Considering Burma’s university history, we need to enhance the role of student unions, which had exists until 1962,” he said. “And student unions’ representatives were involved in university administrative councils. After the military coup in 1962, the role of student unions was revoked.”
Aung Nay Paing, a member of the Democracy Education Initiative Committee, which acted as reformist students’ voice at the negotiating table, said the amendment bill had laid bare a domineering approach to governance by Parliament and the administration of President Thein Sein.
“I can certainly say that this is not the law that resulted from the 11 demands of students. … Parliament’s action in neglecting students’ demands is an action lacking in human dignity,” he said.
Another demand, free compulsory education through year nine of study, also went unmet. Free compulsory education applies through grade four under the new provision, which pledges a “step by step extension” of that grade level.
Thein Lwin said the law as such conflicts with a commitment to compulsory education through grade nine made by Education Minister Khin San Yi at the World Education Forum last month.
Advocates of mother-tongue instruction will also be disappointed with the outcome of Parliament’s amendment debate.
Under the current system of “English and Burmese as the medium instruction,” students are taught almost exclusively in Burmese at government schools, a system that does not look likely to change under the amended law.
By a vote of 394 to 98, lawmakers voted against a provision granting “the right to use concerned ethnic languages as a medium of instruction beginning with early childhood education,” along with English and Burmese. A more progressive proposal by the NNER for “mother tongue-based multilingual education” never made it into either house’s amendment bill.
The nearly 400 lawmakers supporting the provision appeared to be aligning with the Ministry of Education, which said a stronger guarantee of the right to mother tongue instruction was unnecessary because ethnic language teaching was allowed as a medium of instruction at the basic education level.
Khin Maung Yi, a lawmaker from Irrawaddy Division on the losing side of the debate, said during parliamentary deliberations on Thursday that “an ethnic child, once arrived to school, is surely able to speak neither English nor Burmese, but only one’s own ethnic language. Both English and Burmese are new to the child. … It’s easier if the [native] ethnic language is used.”
In one victory for reformists, students will be able to apply to the university of their choice by sitting an entrance system set by each individual university, without their matriculation marks determining their subject of study.
Aung Nay Paing said the beleaguered student movement’s push for reforms would continue.
“We will keep fighting and boycott this education bill because it hasn’t turned out as we demanded,” he told The Irrawaddy.