The fighting peacock rides again. That long-standing symbol of the Burmese student movement, an emblem of resistance to authoritarian rule, once again adorns countless bright red flags held aloft by student activists. They’re protesting against the country’s National Education Law, which was approved by parliament in September 2014 despite objections from student unions and expert networks. The students and their allies view the law as explicitly designed to curb academic freedom.
Students played a crucial role in the Burmese independence movement against British rule in the early twentieth century. Later, in 1988, they even succeeded in toppling the military government (though the generals soon staged a ferocious comeback that kept them in power for another quarter century after that).
For this reason, the significance of the current student campaign goes well beyond education reform. The new student protest movement marks the first national grassroots movement in 25 years that stands outside the established opposition, embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which has been effectively co-opted by the system. While the frustration with the dismal state of Burma’s education system is real enough, the student protests are also reflecting a deeper dissatisfaction with the halting pace of the broader reform process. For this reason it’s quite possible that this new wave of student activism may also signal a major generational shift within the opposition.
The marchers certainly enjoy broad support. Local residents welcome the students when they pass through town, often giving them food. Monasteries provide the students with shelter at night. Local physicians give free medical treatment to marchers who need it, and well-known social service groups in Rangoon, such as the Free Funeral Service Society, have sent ambulances and medical supplies. Teachers living in cities along the route of the march have also embraced the students. In some cases they even give the marchers extra lessons to make up for the work they’ve missed.
The country’s education system, one of the best in the region until the military seized power in 1962, has crumbled under decades of military rule, especially in the aftermath of the student-led pro-democracy in 1988, which was subsequently crushed by the military leaders.
In the period that followed, the military responded to persistent student activism by shutting down many civilian universities, in some cases reopening them in locations far from urban centers to prevent students from staging protests that might gain sympathy among the general public. Until 2011, when the government began its cautious opening of the political system, a mere 1.2 percent of the national budget went to education while defense spending soared to at least 23 percent. That latter figure even excludes a number of special funds drawn from a range of military-backed businesses and other unknown sources. (The junta did not release the budget to public scrutiny for a number of years.)
The current government has pledged to raise the amount spent on education to 5.9 percent of the $19 billion total national budget for fiscal year 2014-15, while reducing the amount spent on defense to 12-13 percent. Yet despite the promises, the current budget allocates some $2.4 billion for defense versus a mere $110 million for education. While generations of civilians suffered under what is now one of the worst education systems in the world, the military and their cronies sent their children to private schools at home and top universities in the region. The ethnic minority populations were especially disadvantaged, since curricula tend to favor the majority Burman ethnicity, in part by prohibiting instruction in minority languages.
According to student leaders and the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a network formed in 2012 with representatives from around 200 civil society organizations, religious groups, education professionals and experts, the government’s new education law fails to address fundamental problems. Student unions and the NNER have issued a list of 11 demands to lawmakers, calling on them to amend the law to decentralize control, allow the formation of student and teacher unions, reintegrate students who left school for political reasons, and increase educational spending to 20 percent of the national budget. In November, student unions issued a 60-day deadline for the parliament to negotiate amendments of the law. The current protests began when the deadline passed.
Students are calling for a four-way negotiating process, to include student representatives, the NNER, the government, and the parliament. As the student marchers gained momentum, Minister of the President’s Office Aung Min announced the start of a national dialogue with the students on Feb. 1. The government, however, postponed the second meeting until after Feb. 12, and refused to grant equal rights to student representatives. The government then muddied the waters by releasing a statement accusing student protestors of being manipulated by political groups aiming to destabilize the country. This is just the same sort of threat that previous military regimes made before launching crackdowns on protests. Students rejected the threat and have continued their marches to Rangoon amid increasing public support.
So what is the role of mainstream opposition groups in this student struggle? Local veteran student activists and members of the opposition party have been crucial in supporting the marchers. But the leadership seems to have a different view. Though the NLD initially opposed the bill, it has remained silent about the law since its passage. When education expert Dr. Thein Lwin, a former member of the NLD central executive committee, attended the national dialogue with the students in his capacity as an NNER member, the NLD issued a statement warning that it could take legal action against him for violating party discipline.
Aung San Suu Kyi declared that Thein Lwin must resign from the party’s central executive committee of the party if he wishes to continue his work on behalf of the NNER. The party then removed him from his position on Feb. 9. Many criticized the party’s handling of Thein Lwin, a British-educated reformer who is one of the very few technocrats in the NLD with exposure to western educational systems. The party runs the risk of playing into the hands of the government, which appears to be getting tougher on the student movement.
Two possible scenarios present themselves. In the short term, the student movement could be weakened by the lack of support from the NLD, which has declined to make any statements warning the government against a crackdown on the protesters. This is particularly worrisome in light of the government’s increasing intolerance of dissent. The authorities could seize upon this by making some sort of partial concession to the students’ demands in order to weaken their movement’s momentum, by using force to disperse the student marchers on their way to Rangoon, or by deploying religious extremists to stage parallel protests (for example about the hot-button issue of extending voting rights to the Burmese Muslims known as Rohingya) to divert attention from the reform movement and to provoke violent and chaotic situation. The government could, of course, even resort to all of these tactics at once. Under these circumstances, the student marchers will have no one to rely on but the international community should the need arise to pressure the government into refraining from violence against the protesters.
Over the longer term, meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that this movement could produce a new generation of Burmese activist leaders—like those who emerged from the student unions during the Independence Movement in the late 1930s. (Intriguingly, those student leaders also arose after the mainstream opposition, consisting of leading Burmese nationalists of the 1920s, had been co-opted by the British colonialists—a situation that’s potentially reminiscent of the current one.) That new generation of student leaders included independence hero Aung San, who once chaired the student union and remains the model for student activists today. (He, of course, is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi.)
Many Burmese worry that the current mainstream opposition, represented mainly by the NLD, is failing to capture broader public discontent. If that continues, these flag-waving students could come to represent the future of the opposition sooner than expected. Burma has been there before.
Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Foreign Policy’s “Democracy Lab,” where this article first appeared on Feb. 9, 2015.