Student detentions ‘linked to coming elections’

Student groups, parents, lawyers and civil society members say that students detained in Myanmar jails after protests against the National Education Law in March are being held intentionally because the government wants activist student groups out of the way before the 2015 election to be held in late October or early November.

The election is also likely to delay parliamentary approval of an amended version of the National Education Law passed in September 2014, which sparked off the massive student protests culminating in a violent police crackdown and 127 arrests in March in the town of Letpadan.

The process of amending the Law was begun in parliament in consultation with student organisations, opposition party the National League for Democracy or NLD, and other civil society groups, in order to halt further student protests.

However, after a meeting hosted by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi with student representatives last week, it emerged that a new Higher Education Law may not be completed before the election, despite repeated promises to students.

Some 62 students from 15 universities around Myanmar met at Suu Kyi’s home on 7 June where she told them the amendment of the Law could only be completed “after 2015”.

Currently parliament is still finalising the amended National Education Law which has been described as the ‘mother law’ for a more detailed Higher Education Law.

A version of the amended National Education Law was passed by parliament’s upper house in early April. In late May Suu Kyi reportedly told students during a meeting hosted by parliament’s Higher Education Drafting Committee that the amended Law would be approved by a joint session of the upper and lower houses of parliament “within two weeks” – approximately by mid-June.

Many of the student demands worked out in four-way talks between the students, government, parliament and civil society groups, have apparently been abandoned in the amended National Education Law, a student said. One of the amendments called for by students and others is the legitimisation of student and teacher unions, currently banned in Myanmar.

Students said the NLD had been inconsistent in its approach to the disputed law. Some NLD members in parliament had backed the removal of the right to form student and teacher unions from the amended Law and others openly supported the students arrested in Letpadan. Students are hoping that this right can be reinstated in a Higher Education Law.

Student role in elections

It is still unclear whether Suu Kyi will be able to contest the election, but during her 7 June meeting with students, she called for student support for the democratic process as well as for the NLD.

Students should be observers, watching out for electoral fraud, ghost votes or impersonation and other irregularities in the voting process, she said.

However, “she gave a clear message to all students that it is more important to observe and monitor the election so that it is free and fair, rather to vote NLD or other parties,” said Han Tala Mon, a representative of the Mon State students union, who attended the meeting.

Students were able to achieve a high level of national coordination in opposing the National Education Law and garnered support from the broader public, demonstrating they have an important role in influencing society.

Han Tala Mon said students and other civil society groups have already been helping people in many areas to check that their names are on the voting register released on 8 June.

“Some people have reported there are many errors in the list. Some families who went and checked the list found their names were not included. If they did not report it, they would not be able to vote in the upcoming election,” he said. But he said government arrests of students meant there would be fewer observers to ensure a free and fair election.

Jailed students

For weeks, families and other groups have been calling for the release of some 70 students and supporters still detained at Tharyawady Prison after the Letpadan crackdown in March. The detainees include almost the entire leadership of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, or ABFSU.

Detainees have been charged with rioting, causing injury to a public servant, unlawful assembly and disturbing national stability, with the possibility of prison terms of up to 10 years.

On 25 May in the first sentencing, university lecturer U Wai Yan Aung, secretary general of the University Teachers’ Association of Pathein, was sentenced to three months with hard labour for leading a student protest in Pathein, Ayeyarwady region.

Daw Myint, whose son Nandar Sit Aung, an ABSFU member, is currently in prison, told University World News the detained students wouldn’t be released before the election because the government did not want students and other activists to monitor the impartiality, fairness and credibility of the elections.

“The students are right and the government is afraid of that. You can see when the students started protesting there were only few people but later it always became enormous,” she said after meeting her son at Tharyawady Court on 9 June.

“Most of the student activist are in prison now and can’t monitor the coming election. The government uses this to prevent the activists but they [the government] will not succeed in their expectations,” Robert San Aung, the defence lawyer for a number of the jailed students told University World News.

The government wants to control the election, not only by arresting the activists but also by provoking religious conflicts, the lawyer said. “This was the way the country’s previous dictatorships acted.”

Si Thu Maung, founder of the Yangon Institute of Economics students’ union, said Suu Kyi told students last week she was worried the election date might be changed or the election stopped because of the current political situation in Myanmar, which included religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas.

Myanmar President Thein Sein has promised that Myanmar’s Union Election Commission would ensure a free and fair election. He told civilians in Taunggyi Township, Shan State on 10 June that people should not whip up riots or religious conflicts before the election.