Agreement raises hopes of changes to education bill

Agreement has been reached in talks between student representatives and the government on criticisms of the unpopular National Education Law.

Following negotiations held between the two sides on 11 February, Hla Tun, a representative from the President’s Office, said a bill would be submitted as early as this Monday.

Student marches from different parts of Myanmar planning to converge on Yangon could be suspended if the new amendments to the law meet their demands.

Students from all over Myanmar will not stop protesting in their own towns, but they will decide after 16 February whether protest marchers would continue to converge on Yangon, Zay Yar Lwin, a member of the students’ Democracy Education Initiative Committee, or DEIC, told University World News.

Thein Swe, a member of parliament for Ayeyarwady Region who attended the talks, said there would be further discussion with students on Saturday on amendments to the law. Discussions would include representatives of the education ministry who would draft the amendments.

The negotiations, which included students, parliamentary representatives and the National Network for Education Reform – an organisation comprising political, educational and religious groups – had “succeeded 100%”, Hla Tun said.

“This is because the talks were based on our desire for the country’s development. We also learned lessons from the previous situation.”

Others involved in the talks hailed them as a success saying it was the first time students and government had sat together to work out a solution. Students were more cautious saying they would await the outcome of the parliamentary process.

Eleven point agreement

During the hastily-convened talks on 11 February, government representatives accepted 11 points put forward by students regarding the September 2014 National Education Law and other grievances.

Among the 11 points was a government undertaking not to take any legal action against protesting students or those who support them – a previous sticking point.

The 11 points covered both secondary and tertiary education but crucially would allow input from representatives of students and teachers while education policy is being drawn up.

Other major points related to higher education included the recognition of students’ unions and teachers’ unions as legal and recognition of university autonomy – both of these were absent from the current restrictive National Education Law passed in September which sparked protests that grew in November and January.

It was also agreed that the education budget be increased to 20% of the national budget within five years. In addition, students expelled for protesting would be allowed to resume their studies.

Acceptance of the 11 points is seen as a significant climb down by the government after it unilaterally postponed a meeting with students, civil society and legislators scheduled for 3 February, saying talks could not take place before the 12 February Union Day public holiday in Myanmar.

This sparked considerable anger and students began to march from several towns around the country, some of them attracting support from the wider population on the way.

Earlier that week some students reported an “ominous increase” in security personnel along the march routes as government broadcasts urged students to stop the protests. But it soon became clear that many different student groups had begun marching.

Fear of protests

The government quickly convened the 11 February meeting because it was afraid of students marching from all over Myanmar to converge on Yangon, said Pai Yae Thu, a third-year mathematics student and DEIC member.

“After wide-ranging protests, the government became anxious. That’s why the government accepted the 11 points hurriedly. But we need more details [on what] can be included in the [education] bill,” he said.

“Whether we stop protesting depends on the education bill that can be approved by parliament,” DEIC member Ma Phyo Phyo Aung said.

She added that if the marches resumed the routes would be the same as before, converging on Yangon. It was because of students’ protests that there had been a good outcome for the talks, she said.

However, she said they could not consider the talks 100% successful until they had seen the actual amendments put forward to parliament, and how representatives proceed with the law in parliament, referring to Hla Tun’s comments about the success of the talks.

“We only succeeded in getting a meeting with them [the government] and a guarantee to negotiate with the Ministry of Education on 14 February, then submit the bill to parliament,” Phyo Phyo Aung told University World News.

The parliament has some 600 representatives, almost a quarter of them from the military.

Eleven student leaders met with four members of the National League for Democracy, including Aung San Suu Kyi, on February 12 in the capital Naypyidaw to discuss the 11 points in detail, Zay Yar Lwin said.

Representatives of students, legislators, advocacy groups and government officials also met on the same day at the Yangon Region Parliament.