Students, NGOs Say Govt Violates Agreement on Education Law Overhaul

By Nobel Zaw 23 February 2015

RANGOON — Student leaders and education NGOs on Sunday accused Burma’s government of violating the conditions of a recently reached agreement on drafting a new education bill. The groups said the Education Ministry had attempted to circulate its own bill, while authorities had continued to issue threats against students.

The Feb. 14 agreement ended large-scale student protests and was the result of extensive discussions between the government, student leaders, education NGOs, and lawmakers.

On Feb. 16, the bill was submitted to Parliament and it is due to be discussed soon. The draft 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 a decentralized curriculum and allowing for native language instruction in classrooms in ethnic minority regions.

However, on Feb. 17 state-run media published the Education Ministry’s own bill, alongside the agreed-upon bill with a title suggesting that the latter was only being proposed by education NGOs of the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) and student leaders of the Action Committee for Democratic Education.

NNER member Arka Moe Thu said the government appeared to distance itself from the agreed-upon bill and had attempted to present its own education bill that was “nearly the same” as the existing Education Law that students and NGOs have been opposing in recent months.

“It violates the four-party agreement,” he said during a press conference held in Rangoon on Sunday, during which the students and NNER released an open letter criticizing the government and calling on it to abide by the Feb. 14 agreement.

As a pre-condition to that agreement, students and NGOs had demanded that the government ceased legal threats against the students, but they said on Sunday that student demonstrators that wanted to march on to Rangoon had still faced legal threats after Feb. 14.

Nationalists Criticize Students’ Education Bill

On Monday, Burma’s nationalist Buddhist movement, the Ma Ba Tha, sought to further ingrain themselves into the country’s political discussions by issuing a statement that criticized the Feb. 14 education bill now in Parliament.

State media published a statement by the Ma Ba Tha, which is led by radical Buddhist monks and has been accused of fanning hate speech against Burma’s Muslim minority, saying that some unnamed provisions in the bill “will cause worries for the future of the country, dangerous loopholes, disastrous side-effects and tricks.”

A man answering the phone at Ma Ba Tha’s Rangoon center declined to explain the vaguely-worded statement. The Irrawaddy understands that the statement is targeted at Article 34 (j) of the bill.

In the current Education Law’s Article 34 Buddhist monastic schools are the only religious schools that can teach in minority languages. Amendments proposed by student leaders and education NGOs would add provision Article 34(j) that would expand the right to teach ethnic minority children in their mother language to all other religious schools.

In the days before Ma Ba Tha released its criticism of the education bill, posts began to appear on Burma’s social network sites where apparently nationalist Facebook users warned that Article 34(j) could lead to teaching of Arabic languages at Islamic schools.

Burma has an active and rapidly growing group of social network users and the sites have been used in the past to spread nationalist hate speech.

Independent education expert Thein Lwin, who helped draw up the Feb. 14 bill, said the amendment to Article 34 had been included at the request of Christian ethnic minority organizations that ran schools in ethnic regions, where many children entering primary school initially only speak their mother tongue.

“In education, there is no discrimination and we found that children learn more effectively when the teacher teaches in their native language,” he said.

Aung Hmine San, a student leader on the Action Committee for Democratic Education, said it appeared that the government was using the Ma Ba Tha to discredit the education NGOs and student movement, which have been popular with the Burmese public.