Student Protest March Continues Despite Opposition from Local Officials

By Zarni Mann 26 January 2015

MYIN GYAN, Mandalay Division — Authorities tried to halt student protesters marching from Mandalay to Rangoon as they arrived in Myin Chan, Mandalay Division, on Sunday where they were welcomed by thousands of locals.

“They told us that if we continued the march, we could be arrested under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law and asked us to present our permission to protest,” said Thant Zin, one of the student leaders.

“They are trying to slow us down. On the other hand, they have to do their job which is to stop us. Since we do not agree with the Peaceful Assembly Law, talking with us about [obtaining] permission is out of the question,” he said.

After talking with student leaders for more than 30 minutes at Nyaung Bin village, about 10 miles from Myin Chan, local officials eventually relented and allowed the protesters to continue.

The students have faced other official obstructions since their protest march began on Jan. 20. Authorities pressured a monastery in Kyaukse Township, Mandalay Division, where the group planned to spend the night on Jan. 22, not to accept the students.

The following morning, the divisional security minister Aung Kyaw Moe met the students and warned them to stop their march, as they needed to request permission under the Peaceful Assembly Law.

The 400-mile march from Mandalay to Rangoon is part of a revamped campaign against the new National Education Law, which was passed by the Union Parliament in Sept. 2014.

Detractors have claimed that the law centralizes control over education and restricts the formation of student bodies. Students and professionals also claimed that the draft was rushed through Parliament without adequate consultation with relevant stakeholders.

Passage of the law prompted widespread student and teacher demonstrations in Burma’s largest cities. Demonstrations were suspended in November 2014, as members issued an ultimatum that the legislation be amended to reflect the will of students and educators within 60 days. That deadline passed without official action.

As protests resumed last week, President Thein Sein urged Burma’s Parliament to revisit the National Education Law.

On Jan. 22, the Parliament agreed to consider amendments and, according to a press release from the legislature, instructed the Ministry of Education to draw up a draft bill of amendments to the law and pledged to then begin deliberations involving “Each [House of] Parliament, related committees, commissions, departments, and relevant people from organizations and professionals.”

However, these latest developments were greeted with skepticism by some protest leaders who continue to push for four-party talks between a student-led committee, advocates, lawmakers and government administrators to discuss the controversial legislation.

“We are still doubtful that the parliament will implement [proposed changes to the bill],” said Nanda Sint Aung, a member of the Action Committee for Democratic Education, a 15-member coalition formed to push for changes to the legislation.

“What if they just fix some small points in the draft and then approve the bill? Our ultimate goal is the four-party talks to discuss the draft in detail, including what we accept and what we don’t.”

As the march entered its sixth day on Sunday, the number of participants grew to more than 1,500 as local supporters, students and Buddhist monks joined protesters.

Members of the Young Buddhist Monks association from Chauk Township, Magwe Division, and the Karenni Students Union joined the students from Natogyi Township, Mandalay Division.

After hearing that authorities had tried to halt them, about 500 students from Myin Chan University marched to meet their fellow students at Nyaung Bin village. Nearly two-dozen students from neighboring Pakkoko and Nyaung U also joined protesters on Monday.

“Some of us are planning to follow the march until they reach Rangoon,” said Zu Min Htet, a student from Myin Chan University.

Thousands of locals, some with offerings of food and drink, lined the main road of Myin Chan on Sunday to cheer on the students who chanted slogans and sang songs.

“We were once students too,” said Thein Kyi, a resident of Myin Chan. “Our children are still at school and these youth are also our children. Since they care nothing for their wellbeing but have taken to the road for the future generation’s education, we have to cheer them.”

The march will resume on Tuesday after protesters spend the night in Myin Chan.