Student protests resume as talks are postponed

Students have said they will resume their protests in a number of cities around the country over a controversial education law, after talks scheduled for last week involving students, legislators, advocacy groups and government officials were unilaterally postponed by the government.

The students promised a new wave of protests beginning in different parts of the country, saying a new education law passed last September gives too much centralised power to the government, restricts university autonomy and academic freedom, and bans the right of students to form unions.

Students from all over Myanmar have started marching again, to converge on Yangon, Ma Phyo Phyo Aung, a member of the students’ Democracy Education Initiative Committee – the 15-member student group participating in the talks – told University World News.

The so-called quadripartite discussions, involving students, legislators, civil society and government officials – initiated after student protests that began in September when the law was passed – have been pushed forward to after the 12 February Union Day holiday in Myanmar, sparking renewed anger from students and civil society groups.

The government statement said officials were “busy with other matters” and would not be available until after 12 February.

As part of the agreement for the talks to begin in the capital, Naypyidaw, students had called a halt to marches involving hundreds of students. These had spread in November and January from Yangon to several towns, including Mandalay and Sagaing.

‘Broken agreement’

The talks were agreed in a joint statement issued on 28 January by the Minister in the President's Office Aung Min and the Democracy Education Initiative Committee, or DEIC – an unprecedented move.

Several student-led demonstrations have occurred since Myanmar’s military coup of 1962, but never before have these led to a meeting with government representatives, students said.

However, the Myanmar government broke the terms of the agreement to begin talks on 3 February, Nyo Nyo Thin, a member of the Yangon Region Parliament, Bahan Township, said.

Apart from the 15 DEIC students, the government did not allow other stakeholders to attend that meeting, she told University World News.

“We told [the government] that if they limit the number of participants like this, we are not able to go in [to the talks],’ said Ma Phyo Phyo Aung of the DEIC.

Although billed as quadripartite talks, Aung Min, the leading government representative at the talks had questioned whether the National Network for Education Reform, or NNER – which includes members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party – actually represents students.


Both sides had previously agreed to seven ‘preconditions’ for the talks, during initial talks held at Rangoon University in Yangon on 1 February.

These included moves to ensure the talks were transparent – that public statements would be issued at the end of each meeting, providing public access to information relating to education reforms and ensuring all parties in the talks have “equal opportunity to participate”.

Students and members of the NNER, civil society and religious groups, have said students and teachers should be involved in drafting outline amendments to the current and future legislation on education.

An agreement for the government to recognise and accept existing student and teacher unions was also made after much wrangling. But the details of government ‘acceptance’ required further talks, the government said.

Notably, one of the preconditions, that the government guarantees no recriminations against student protesters, was not agreed upon.

Student protests

President Thein Sein said during his regular monthly radio broadcast on 1 February that students should stop their protests to pave the way for dialogue to take place.

Dialogue was the only practical way to find a solution, he said and added that there should be stability in the country during the ongoing high school examination period.

After the July 2014 education bill passed into law, with 19 of 25 amendments from Thein Sein approved by legislators in September, student protests grew. On 21 January hundreds of students started to march from Mandalay to Yangon, but were stopped by police in Taungtha town a week later.

Despite previously saying that amendments would not be possible, Thein Sein requested parliament to reconsider some sections of the law, ministry officials said.

The Ministry of Education has said it will submit a bill to the current parliamentary session to amend the National Education Law.