One of the first acts by Myanmar’s new government headed by the National League for Democracy’s Aung San Suu Kyi was to grant amnesty to politicians, activists and students jailed by the previous military regime – including leaders of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions or ABFSU, and the University Students’ Union known locally as Ta Ka Tha.
Among them were student protestors and their supporters arrested and imprisoned in Letpadan in March 2015 after violent clashes with police while demonstrating against the National Education Law passed in September 2014.
Within days of the instatement of the new government on 31 March this year, a court in Tharrawaddy quashed all charges against the remaining 69 students – 127 were originally arrested at Letpadan; some had already been freed, others released on bail, and 40 were still in prison.
The students were released in batches between 5 and 8 April amid emotional scenes and dancing in the streets by jubilant relatives.
The question now being asked is whether they will resume street protests against the controversial National Education Law, or adopt other means to campaign under the new democratic government formed after Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, or NLD, won a landslide victory in the November 2015 general election.
Part of an action plan agreed by released ABFSU student leaders in May includes campaigning to legalise student unions, to promote student unions in ethnic minority areas, to transfer leadership of the ABFSU to a new generation, and to meet with political forces on the national education law to push through amendments.
Newly released associate secretary of the ABFSU central working committee, Min Thway Thit, said their grievances were not directed against the NLD-led government.
“This government is elected by us. We believe in the [NLD] party and we think it will be better for the law,” he said, referring to democratic law-making in general as well as the education law.
The union’s activities would be directed at amending the education law “in accordance with democratic standards”, he said. These include the right to form student and teacher unions, not currently spelled out in the law.
Students would not take to the streets as in the past, but seek change by other means, said Nandar Sit Aung, another ABFSU member released in March. “Our protest has not reached the stage of being called off, but it is not at a level of street protests now. Rather, we are at a stage of amending the law,” he said.
Student unions are still not officially allowed even though students are not being jailed for union activities. “We can’t say it is legitimate,” he said. ABFSU would need to keep on negotiating with the administrative authorities in each university on the right to form student unions in line with the law.
At a press conference on 6 May, newly-released ABFSU leaders set out their goals and action plan, and said they had requested a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss various issues, including amending the education law.
Hani Oo, ABFSU central working committee treasurer, said: “We sent an official letter to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. We have other plans to meet with ethnic political parties to fulfil our 11 demands related to education.”
Under the previous Thein Sein government, the National Education Law was debated and approved by parliament.
But a campaigning coalition of civil society groups and education experts known as the National Network for Educational Reform, as well as ABFSU and other student organisations, objected, saying the law was anti-democratic. They demanded amendments including the right to form unions.
In the wake of protests, parliament amended some clauses after parliamentary committee hearings with students – but excluding ABFSU and Ta Ka Tha leaders who had been arrested and imprisoned after the Letpadan clashes.
While supportive of the NLD, it might not be an easy ride.
Students are less than enamoured with the party’s newly appointed Education Minister Myo Thein Gyi, who they say did the previous government’s bidding in his former role as director general of the ministry’s Educational Research Bureau.
He was part of the government’s team negotiating with student leaders in early 2015, leaving students distrustful of his pronouncements. “We have to watch him with great care – whether he will be good for education policy when he becomes minister for education under the NLD government,” said student leader Phyo Phyo Aung, also released in March.
There are other hurdles to overcome.
Moe Htet Nay, vice-chair of ABFSU’s central working committee, said the NLD desired the instatement of democratic rights, but could face obstacles as it has to function under the 2008 constitution.
“As the constitution is a big challenge, we have to wait and see what the NLD government can do,” he said. Although the NLD won 80% of contested seats in last November’s election, under the current constitution a quarter of seats in parliament are reserved for the military.
Student leader Aung Nay Paing said the NLD government will try to change the constitution, but could not do it alone. “We all need to participate to amend the constitution. We students will contribute substantially,” he said, without specifying what action students could take.
In the past, student groups have been instrumental in gathering public support for petitions to amend section 436 of the 2008 constitution. Support from three-quarters of all members of parliament is required for any constitutional amendment. These changes have not occurred.
Many of the released students who are now in their 30s have said they will hand over their student union roles to younger students while they focus on political and lobbying work to change the 2008 constitution.
“I will enter politics, but I have not decided in detail how I will do it,” Nandar Sit Aung said. He was first arrested in 2003 for involvement in ‘underground political activities’ but released in 2012. He was arrested again at Letpadan three years later.
“I was sent to prison when I was 23, and was 32 when I was released. I have not finished my education, I can’t even resume my education,” he said, pointing out that the student union landscape had changed during that time.
Released student leaders said they had already drawn up a timetable to hand over, planning a meeting of all universities in the next two months. By September they would hold district level meetings of student unions, and implement a student conference at which their duties would be transferred to younger leaders.
Some of the younger student leaders in their 20s, such as Zeyar Lwin and Aung Nay Paing, said they would continue to be active in the student movement.
Nonetheless, the changeover will mark a different era in pushing student interests and education issues under a democratic government.
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