Anger at ‘broken promises’ in education bill

A new National Education Bill has been presented to Myanmar’s parliament after months of protests over the previous education law, but students are angry at what they say is government broken promises regarding the amended bill.

An agreement to present a new bill to parliament, taking on board the concerns of students and other groups, was hailed by students as a breakthrough as it included the 11 main points demanded by the protesters.

These included giving universities more autonomy, and guarantees of freedom of assembly and expression, as well as legalising student and teacher unions.

The 11 February talks with government included student representatives, the National Network for Education Reform, or NNER, which includes Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and other non-governmental groups, and religious groups, in what was known as quadripartite or four-party talks to discuss ways to amend the education bill.

According to parliament, a new National Education Bill was submitted to parliament on 17 February, drawn up by the Ministry of Education.

Not as agreed

But students and education groups say it was not what had been agreed by students, in the quadripartite talks held with government representatives on 11 February, as a condition for ending their protests. Their own agreement with government had been reduced to a ‘proposal’, while the government had merely presented its own legislation as if no talks had been held, they said.

“The government’s action seems to break the four-party agreement,” said Nyo Nyo Thin, a member of the Yangon Regional Parliament who took part in the four-party talks. She told University World News, it was clear “they just wanted to stop students marching”.

“The new bill drawn up by the Education Ministry, as far as we can see, is one hundred percent the central authorities’ [bill] and it’s also nearly the same as the existing National Education Law, so we can’t accept it,” said Nyo Nyo Thin.

“The bill we proposed [during the four-party talks] was to guarantee educational freedoms,” she added.

Once the bill was drafted during the talks, “the Education Ministry had said they would withdraw their own bill on 14 February. Instead it was the Ministry’s bill that was tabled in parliament,” she said.

In addition, Nyo Nyo Thin claimed the government did not publish the full bill in state run newspapers and had also changed the meaning of some of the clauses.

“They did not mention some of the points that we added, so we have to question whether they are being honest. They seem to be intentionally creating problems,” she said.

Parliament’s upper house released a statement this week saying the bill would be discussed for eight days after 5 March.

Ma Phyo Phyo Aung, a member of the students’ Democracy Education Initiative Committee, or DEIC, which took part in the four-party talks, told University World News: “Although parliament has promised to debate this bill as soon as possible, they say they plan to consult with the people for 10 days.”

Students were also concerned to hear that certain amendments proposed in the four-party talks could not be approved by parliament and they intended to find out why.

A delaying tactic?

This had never been seen before in the parliament’s workings, he said. Others saw it as a delaying tactic to keep student marchers from converging on Yangon from all over the country, as they had said they planned to do.

“In the quadripartite talks it was agreed this bill would be debated [by parliament] as soon as possible. The parliament also promised this. That’s why the students paused their marching.

However, now we see that they will take longer to finish discussing it – over a month,” Nyo Nyo Thin said.

Parliamentarian Khin Maung Yi, chairperson of the bill committee, said the amended education bill should not be rushed. It “needs step-by-step hearings as this law is quite different from the normal laws".

"It is crucial that this should be a perfect law as this relates to national affairs. So it needs to take some time,” he told local media.

But Zay Yar Lwin, a member of the DEIC, said: “We will start marching again on 1 March because what the government is doing is not open and honest.”

Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.