RANGOON — Burma’s Home Affairs minister said over the weekend that protestors against the controversial National Education Law were threatening the country’s stability and development, a high-level condemnation that comes as tensions rise between student demonstrators and the government.
In an interview with state-run media that aired on Saturday evening, Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko said the ongoing protests were a political pretext for a movement masterminded by anti-government elements masquerading as students.
“We’ve found that there are some political parties fanning the protests, while social organizations are helping the students,” he said.
“We also found that the protests are made up of student organizations and elderly people—people who are too old to be students, and married people. If you look at the situation closely, you will find that ex-political hardliners are behind the protests. They are using their children to take the leading role of the protests.
“We’ve found out that some foreign organizations are encouraging them,” added the minister, who was accused last year of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a Harvard human rights group, which said it had collected sufficient evidence to merit the issuance of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant.
Nanda Sit Aung, one of the leaders of the student protests, rejected the accusations, calling them “classic” tactics used by Burma’s former junta when confronting the country’s long history of student activism and dissent.
“We are not asking them for power. [We’re] just asking them to fix the undemocratic education [law],” he said.
Since last month, students have been on a 400-mile march from Mandalay to Rangoon to protest the National Education Law, which was passed last year. Protestors say the legislation was not drafted in an inclusive fashion and bans the formation of student unions. The students from Upper Burma have triggered similar marches originating in Irrawaddy and Tenasserim divisions, with the groups expected to arrive in the commercial capital sometime in the coming weeks.
Earlier this month, student representatives and government officials held two meetings to discuss the law, but the talks bore no tangible results. The government last week postponed a third meeting until after Feb. 12, which marks Union Day in Burma.
Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said he did not view the student protests as a threat to Burma’s stability and security.
“The protests are not happening without reason,” he said. “They are just pointing out the government’s weakness. If they think the protests are a threat for them, I have to say their mindset is not much different from their predecessors, the ex-military dictatorship.”
A proud tradition of student activism, dating back to Burma’s struggle for independence from Britain, has been met by successive military governments with violent suppression, including crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in 1988 and during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Authorities in both those incidents justified the suppression by claiming to be acting in the interest of the nation, the stability of which was said to be threatened by the protesting masses.
Asked about the possibility of a confrontation between students and the government this time, Yan Myo Thein said it was unlikely thanks to the current political horizon.
“We have both a general election and a referendum on constitutional amendments this year. It’s a very politically sensitive year. If they take action very seriously [against student protestors], it will have a negative impact on their international image.
“Plus, if there is any crackdown, popular votes will pour onto the side of the opposition. They know it very well. They will take a negotiation approach rather than confrontation,” he added.