Protests Continue as Students, Govt Discuss Education Reform

By Nobel Zaw 2 February 2015

RANGOON — Student demonstrators have reached an eight-point agreement with educational and political stakeholders outlining pre-conditions for further discussion of education reform, though activists said the government deferred a request to grant immunity to protesters.

Hordes of students and their supporters set out from Mandalay on Jan. 20 to protest a controversial new National Education Law, planning to drum up support as they marched to the commercial capital, Rangoon.

The demonstrations were paused on Sunday as student leaders met with lawmakers, politicians and members of the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) in Rangoon, but the march resumed on Monday despite what some viewed as warnings from authorities.

President’s Office Minister Aung Min said during Sunday’s meeting that he had told student demonstrators during previous discussions in Naypyidaw that he would “take responsibility of security for students until they reached Popa [in Mandalay Division] with the approval of the president,” but the safety of those who continued the march could not be guaranteed until he speaks with the president.

Student representatives said that while legal and physical protection for the demonstrators was among their priorities, no progress has been made toward immunity so the issue was temporarily shelved to allow time for other debates.

“We have already prepared for everything,” said Phyo Phyo Aung, a member of the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE), “so we skipped this topic to discuss other important demands and we will discuss it again [during future talks].”

Sunday’s talks concluded with a formal agreement signed by participants that the quadripartite talks about education reform would continue in Naypyidaw on Jan. 3, and would proceed under certain conditions set by the students.

Their first three demands were easily accepted by other stakeholders, including agreements to issue a public statement at the end of each meeting, allow the public access to information and activities related to education reform, and ensuring that all four parties involved in the talks have equal opportunity to participate.

An agreement for the government to recognize and accept existing student and teachers unions was reached after an exhaustive four-hour debate, with many details still pending further talks.

Students and NNER representatives also demanded that students and educators be involved in drafting the framework for amendments to existing and future legislation related to education. Plans detailing how stakeholders will be involved in the process will be discussed in future meetings.

Eleven specific legislative demands made by student protesters have not yet come under review.

“We haven’t discussed our 11 demands yet, we only discussed the preconditions,” said Min Thwe Thit, another member of the ACDE. He said government representatives were not amenable to all of the students’ desires, leaving him “not satisfied with this meeting.”

The 11 demands cover wide-ranging criticisms of the National Education Law, calling on lawmakers to amend the law to decentralize curricular control, allow formation of student and teachers unions, reintegrate students who left school for political reasons and increase educational spending to 20 percent of the national budget.

President Thein Sein did not attend Sunday’s meeting but sent a letter to participants which was read aloud by Aung Min. The president acknowledged that many parents were concerned by the recent demonstrations, fearing that they could disrupt exams forthcoming exams or lead to the closure of schools. He urged lawmakers to find an expedient solution for amending the National Education Law.

“Because of the pressure of these protests, the government is calling for negotiations,” said ACDE’s Min Thwe Thit. “Our protests will continue as we proceed with discussion.”

The student protests have gained considerable traction since they began in late 2014. Hundreds of students continued their march on Monday, leaving Yanangyaung in central Burma for Magwe, the capital of the division of the same name.