Southern Student Protests Disband, as Mandalay Marchers Press Ahead

By Nobel Zaw 17 February 2015

RANGOON — Student demonstrations in the country’s south have officially halted in anticipation of promised reforms to Burma’s National Education Law, as the procession from Mandalay which inaugurated protest marches across the country last month have vowed to press ahead to Rangoon.

Student groups from Dawei, Moulmein and Irrawaddy Division announced on Monday they would cease their activities and return home in anticipation of a revised education bill being submitted to the Union Parliament.

Min Lwin Oo, a leadership committee member of the combined Dawei and Moulmein student groups, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that as the government has agreed to quadripartite talks and the drafting of a new education bill, protesters had decided not to continue their journey to Rangoon.

“We will return to our homes tonight,” he said. “We will explain our draft bill to the students of our hometowns and we will keep watching to see if the parliament approves our bill. If they don’t, we will return to our protests even stronger than before.”

Kyaw Nanda, a student leader from the Irrawaddy Division protest groups, said that the column last week on the outskirts of Rangoon Division would return home by Wednesday.

“We will not march to Rangoon,” he said on Monday. “The public and our parents worry about us, so from today we will halt our protest and keep monitoring the situation in parliament. We will take the students who participated in the protests back to their parents.”

Leaders of the protests have partially attributed their decision to the release of two statements by Dr. Ashin Nyanissara, one of Burma’s most revered monks. An open letter to the protesters told them to be proud of their successes and resume their studies to improve the future prospects of the country.

“Students are the children of the country,” a subsequent statement to the government read. “So, they are also the children of the government. Parents forgive their children, so the government should forgive the students, and agree as much as they can to their demands.”

On Sunday, student representatives and members of the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) finished drawing up an amended education bill at the Ministry of Education in Naypyidaw. According to Min Thwe Thit, a member of the Action Committee for Democratic Education and one of the members of the Mandalay march, the bill was submitted to Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann on Monday and will be discussed over the course of the parliamentary sitting week.

The ambitious bill incorporates the 11 principal concerns of student protesters, broadly seeking to loosen government control over educational institutions and expand access to education. Specific provisions include the establishment of free middle school education, explicit allowance of independent student and teaching unions, a decentralized curriculum, and native language instruction in classrooms based in ethnic minority regions.

Khine Maung Myint, a lawmaker and member of the Education Committee, said that the bill is likely to have a quick passage through parliament.

“The amended bill will be discussed in each house. If there is no argument between the houses, it will be sent straight to the president to sign. If there are disagreements, the next joint session of parliament will debate the bill and then send it to the president,” he said.

Student protesters from Mandalay, on the march since Jan. 20, said they would continue their demonstration despite the government’s concessions on education policy.

“We continue to protest and we hope to arrive Rangoon next 10 days,” said Min Thwe Thit. “There is the meeting between protesters tomorrow to determine their willingness to continue, but most of the students want to go on.”

The Mandalay demonstrators have now left Min Hla town and are on their way to the Bago Division township of Letpadan, having completed two-thirds of the 640-kilometer (400-mile). About 200 core protesters are now permanent members of the march, their ranks usually swelling above 700 as local residents join the procession to provide temporary escorts and protection through populated areas.

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 protesters to enter Rangoon. “Actions in accordance with the law” would be taken if protesters pushed ahead with their plan to assemble in the commercial capital, the ministry said.