The Students Too Deserve an Olive Branch

By The Irrawaddy 1 April 2015

Who would have thought that as government negotiators were shaking hands with their ethnic rebel counterparts this week, 70 students would hear news of the historic moment sitting in prison northwest of Rangoon, where they await trial for various charges after police cracked down on their peaceful protest last month?

Admittedly, students’ battles with successive authoritarian governments go back nearly as long as ethnic armed rebellions in Burma, but surely a betting man would have put money on the country’s complex civil war as the more intractable of the conflicts.

The students and some of their supporters are facing criminal charges for their involvement in advocating reform of the National Education Law. They ended up in Thayawaddy prison, nearly 80 miles northwest of Rangoon, after their 40-day march from Mandalay and a subsequent sit-in was violently dispersed by police on March 10 in Letpadan, Pegu Division.

Apart from those who have been detained, another three student leaders—Kyaw Ko Ko, Myat Thu and Ye Yint Kyaw—are in hiding as authorities attempt to hunt them down.

You may ask: Surely, there’s more to the plot—some nefarious undercurrent motivating the students for which their ostensible aims are merely a façade?

But you would be wrong. These protesters are merely demanding an overhaul of the country’s long-neglected and highly centralized education system. They took to the streets not in support of the immediate resignation of Thein Sein’s administration or the violent overthrow of his government.

The government’s response to the students’ nonviolent protest was quite the opposite of peaceful, and one more stain on its reformist mantle was inked. In other words, sadly, the way the government and its “civilian reformers” are handling these protesters is no different than how their predecessors in previous military regime would have: brutal crackdowns and follow-up arrests.

The detainees have been charged with at least five articles, including under Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law. Right after the crackdown, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that anyone found to have been behind the incident, encouraged unlawful activity or “tried to destabilize the country” would be charged in accordance with the law—a euphemism for repression that was previously embraced by Burma’s military juntas.

It is taken for granted that if found guilty, the verdicts will further fuel public anger toward the government, which boiled to the surface in the aftermath of the heavy-handed tactics in Letpadan and played out on social media and in the editorial pages of Burma’s dailies and weeklies.

It is to this publication’s bewilderment that the government is able to set aside more than 65 years of armed conflict with ethnic minority groups while actively stifling students’ right to advocate for political change.

The protest’s ultimate goal is educational reform. On their nearly 320-mile march down from Mandalay, the protesters had hardly done anything that threatened “to destabilize the country.” We know this because a freer media environment in recent years allowed journalists to document the protest movement relatively uninhibited.

At this moment when, at least ostensibly, the government is feeling unprecedented goodwill toward the country’s ethnic armed groups, another gesture in the spirit of national reconciliation is in order: the immediate release of the protesters.

A presidential pardon for the students would be a public relations boon for a government that has lost a great deal of luster in the eyes of both domestic and international audiences as a result of the crackdown in Letpadan.

And if the young activists remain behind bars? Well, then it’s a good day to ask: Regarding this government’s claims of reformist intent, are we being played for April Fools?