Burmese students protest the 2014 Myanmar National Education Law, 2014-15

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Timing
Time Period:  
29 March
2014
to
10 March
2015
Location and Goals
Country: 
Burma
Location City/State/Province: 
Yangon (formerly Rangoon)
Location Description: 
Actions took place throughout the nation, but many of the demonstrations were located in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
Goals: 
The goals of the campaign included reform of the National Education Law to include public consultation, allow for teacher and student unionization, and promote ethnic minority education.
 

Screen Shot 2017-05-07 at 2.54.16 PM.png

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bdcburma/16760740206

Caption: Burmese students continued to protest for education reform, despite the numerous cases of police brutality and violence that were reported throughout the nation.

Photo credit: Burma Democratic Concern (BDC), Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0. No changes were made to the photo. Most recent licensing: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Public education in the state of Burma, which once boasted some of the highest literacy and graduation rates on the Asian continent, used to be recognized as “one of the best.” After the late 1990s, however, the nation’s educational policy steadily declined in its efficacy. In 2001, the United Nations Development Programme ranked Burma as 164, out of 168 nations, for public expenditures on education -- only 1.2% of the country’s annual budget was dedicated to education. Furthermore, Burma’s Ministry of Education operated the entire education system, leaving students with few opportunities outside the government school system.

The government’s firm grip on education, from determining specific curriculum to eliminating educational opportunities for ethnic minority groups, was a response to historical student mobilizations against the regime of General Ne Win. In 1988, students in Rangoon organized a series of pro-democracy protests, known today as the 8888 Uprising. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)’s military coup shut down the movement. After the 8888 Uprising, the government closed all universities for two years, as a punishment for those who protested.

Burmese students felt that progress had yet to be made. In March of 2014, Myanmar’s Education Promotion and Implementation Committee (EPIC) began drafting the Myanmar National Education Law, aimed at reforming the education system. While the Burmese government declared the bill would give autonomy to universities, many students and teachers remained skeptical.

Many felt that the new bill failed to prioritize education for ethnic minority groups, created anti-unionization measures against teachers and students, and eliminated an already small private education sector.

Shortly after the publishing of the bill’s draft, several teachers and public administration officials reported concerns. On 29 March 2014, the United Teachers Association (UTA) criticized EPIC for proceeding with the creation of educational policy without consulting those who would ensure the success of the policies -- the teachers themselves. Nay Pyi Taw, secretary of the Yatanarpon University Association, noted that the failure to discuss reforms with teachers indicated that “it was obvious that the government still maintains central control over education.” The National Network for Education Reform (NEER) reported similar concerns and threatened to demonstrate against the law, unless EPIC took it upon themselves to hold public consultations.

On 30 July 2014, parliament approved the National Education Bill. President Thein Sein approved the legislation, with 25 suggestions, and on 30 September 2014, the National Education Law was officially enacted.

Students and teachers quickly mobilized. On 4 October 2014, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and the Confederation of University Student Unions (CUSU) met to determine how to proceed and created the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE).

Shortly after, on 14 November 2014, 350 students from Myanmar University gathered in the city of Yangon to begin the Four-Day March, an action organized by ACDE. Students, teachers, and supporters of reform marched throughout the streets of Yangon University and Shwedagon Pagoda, waving ABFSU’s fighting peacock flags and holding signs that read, “we need academic freedom” and “we are students, not customers.” Protesters were especially concerned with a specific clause in the bill that would create a National Education Commission, which many viewed as a means of extending government intervention in civil society. On 17 November 2014, protesters offered the government an ultimatum: respond to the widespread discontent within 60 days or face nationwide protests.

Just one week later, 50 students from Mandalay, Monywa, and Sagaing staged a protest in front of City Hall, demanding that the government acknowledge growing concerns -- an action not authorized by ACDE.

After failing to receive a response from the government, over one hundred students initiated an illegal 404-mile march from Mandalay to Yangon in January. Just one day after the march began, on 21 January 2015, President Sein publicly announced that the parliament would consider amending their legislation, which many students perceived as a step in the right direction.

Two days later, the parliament agreed to consider making changes, and a meeting between the government and student leaders was arranged to take place on 1 February 2015. On 23 January 2015, ACDE released a list of demands they wanted to discuss, which included inclusive lawmaking involving teachers and students, self-management of educational affairs, freedom to unionize, and several other appeals.

However, the meeting failed to address any of ACDE’s demands, and on 3 February 2015, students declared they would continue the protests.

On 2 March 2015, students in the city of Letpadan attempted to resume their march, but the government immediately shut it down. The protesters were staying at a monastery, which was quickly barricaded by barbed wire and a wall of police forces. Police Lieutenant Nanda Win noted that he wanted to resolve the confrontation without force.

Several students went on a hunger strike on 3 March 2015 in an attempt to convince the government to let the students in Letpadan continue their march. Throughout the week of 3 March, students, monks, and other protesters attempted to organize in various locations, but police beat, shot, and locked up demonstrators who could not flee the scene in time.

Police arrested 65 of the demonstrators on charges of “insulting civil servants” and “refusal to disperse.” Bystanders released videos of police brutality against these protesters, drawing international attention to the nation’s human rights violations. To this, President Sein justified the police force’s actions by saying that while “injuries happen in Myanmar, death would have happened in the West.”

On 10 March 2015, students attempted to remove the barbed wire and get past the police blockade. The police declared their efforts illegal and demanded that the protesters leave the monastery. Still, the student protesters refused and peacefully turned themselves in, to be arrested. This act of resistance came as a surprise to the police, which met this action with further violence, injuring over 100 people.

Parliament refused to engage in peaceful discourse with the demonstrators, and moreover, failed to consider the proposed policy reforms. In 2017, educational quality in Myanmar was assessed as “dismal” by the European Union and other independent international organizations.

Research Notes
Sources: 
BBC (2015). “Myanmar students and activists charged over protest clashes.” 25 March 2015. Web site: BBC. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170427172726/http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32046136

BBC (2015). “Myanmar students defy deadline to disperse.” 3 March 2015. Web site: BBC. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170507184247/http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-31716169

Corderoy, Jenna (2015). “Video Shows Myanmar Police Beating Students and Monks at Education Bill Protest.” 10 March 2015. Web site: Vice. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170507184435/https://news.vice.com/article/video-shows-myanmar-police-beating-students-and-monks-at-education-bill-protest

Lipes, Joshua (2015). “Myanmar Students Launch Protest March Against Education Bill.” 20 January 2015. Web site: Radio Free Asia. Retrieved from

http://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/march-01202015162515.html

Oxford Burma Alliance (2011). “Education in Burma.” Web site: Oxford Burma Alliance. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170507184544/http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/education-in-burma.html

Reuters (2015). “Burmese police crackdown on education bill protesters condemned.” 10 March 2015. Web site: The Guardian. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170507184611/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/10/burmese-police-clash-demonstrators-education-bill

Saning, Yen (2014). “Backlash Grows Against Burma’s National Education Bill.” 23 September 2014. Web site: The Irrawaddy. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170507184634/https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/backlash-grows-burmas-national-education-bill.html

Su Wai, Khin (2014). “Education law drafted without teacher input, says association.” 6 April 2014. Web site: Myanmar Times. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170507184659/http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/10079-education-law-drafted-without-teacher-input-says-association.html

Zaw, Nobel (2014). “Students Protest Education Law in Downtown Rangoon.” 14 November 2014. Web site: The Irrawaddy. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170507184728/https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/students-protest-education-law-downtown-rangoon.html

Zaw, Nobel (2015). “Students, NGO Experts Outline Education Reform Demands at Upper House.” 17 March 2015. Web site: The Irrawaddy. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170507184803/https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/students-ngo-experts-outline-education-reform-demands-at-upper-house.html

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Seimi Park, 19/04/2017