Pass Amendments and We’ll Go Home, Protesting Students Say

By Nobel Zaw 13 February 2015

RANGOON — A student protest group in the midst of a march from Mandalay to Rangoon released a statement on Friday saying they would continue their demonstration until Parliament passes an amended National Education Law in line with their demands.

The group began its marched from Mandalay on Jan. 20 and arrived to Paungde Township in Pegu Division on Friday, having completed nearly two-thirds of the 400-mile journey.

“If Parliament’s decision is not satisfactory, we will march in protest to Rangoon, and if it is satisfactory, we will walk to Rangoon in a show of victory,” read the students’ statement.

Nanda Sit Aung, a member of the committee spearheading the protest, told The Irrawaddy that they had reached agreement with a handful of other protest movements across the country, with all the student groups resolving to continue their respective marches to Rangoon. The other groups will release separate statements declaring their intentions, said Nanda Sit Aung of the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE).

Min Thwe Thit, also a member of the ACDE, told The Irrawaddy that the movement was not willing to take the government at its word alone.

“The public are worried and ask us why we don’t stop our protest, and I want to explain to them that we only have an agreement [in principle] and have not officially seen our demands met.”

Across Burma, groups of student protestors have set out on marches with the intention of converging on Rangoon. Students from Irrawaddy Division, Dawei and middle Burma have all followed the lead of the main group of protestors originating in Mandalay.

But in a development potentially presaging confrontation, the Ministry of Information announced on Friday night that “for the sake of the country’s security, rule of law and to maintain regional peace,” authorities would not allow the protesting students to enter Rangoon. “Actions in accordance with the law” would be taken if protesters pushed ahead with the plan to congregate in the commercial capital, the ministry said.

The government has taken an increasingly hostile stance toward the protest movement, with authorities boosting the police presence along the marchers’ routes and Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko saying this week that the students posed a threat to Burma’s stability.

Students have been at the forefront of protest actions since pro-independence sentiment picked up steam against Burma’s British colonizers in the early 20th century. Successive junta governments dealt harshly with young dissenters, most notably in 1988, when a student-led uprising was brutally crushed by the former junta. Thousands were killed in the streets of Rangoon in the bloody crackdown.

The Mon State government initially said it would not allow the student group from Dawei to leave the state, but later gave way to the marchers.

“First they told us that they would only let us go after Feb. 14 out of fear of violence,” said ACDE member Min Lwin Oo, adding that students ran into further resistance when a group of people that were not residents of the area tried to stop them.

“Through tears, we explained why we are protesting the education law,” he said. “We paid respect to them and then they didn’t stop us anymore.”

A delegation of the protesting students met on Thursday with Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Naypyidaw and discussed the students’ 11 demands pertaining to amending the National Education Law.

“We discussed our 11 demands and whether we planned to stop the protest or not,” said Min Lwin Oo, adding that they told the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman that only the realization of their demands in Parliament would see the students return to the classroom.

“She said that this cannot be; that in a democratic country, we cannot hope that all of our demands will be met.”

Critics of the National Education Law say the legislation centralizes authority, restricts the formation of student and teacher unions and limits curricular freedoms.

Among the students’ demands are that the government reintegrate students who left school for political reasons, boost educational spending to 20 percent of the national budget, and change the law to decentralize control over curricula and allow the formation of student and teachers unions.

In a third meeting held on Wednesday involving students, the administration of President Thein Sein, parliamentary representatives and education advocates, the students secured assurances from the government the National Education Law would be revisited and that their 11 demands would be met. A fourth round of talks is due on Saturday, when participants will discuss the details of how the legislation will be revised.