YANGON, Myanmar ― Students in Myanmar have threatened to protest nationwide if the government does not amend an education law that prohibits them from engaging in political activities and curbs academic freedom.
After four consecutive days of defying threats of arrest by rallying in the crumbling old capital, the students gave the government 60 days to meet their demands, said Phyo Phyo Aung, general secretary of the All Burma Federation of Students Union.
Pumping fists in the air and waving banners emblazoned with a fighting peacock, a symbol of resistance, they wound through Yangon’s streets.
Myanmar has been grappling with political reforms since 2011, when the country’s long-time military rulers handed power to a nominally civilian government headed by President Thein Sein, himself an ex-general.
But experts say the education system still harkens back to the days of authoritarian rule, when what was taught in classrooms was tightly controlled by the state and all political activities were forbidden.
In response to the protests, The Education Ministry issued a statement in state-run newspapers Tuesday stating that the law guarantees academic freedom and demands made by the students, including the formation of student unions, can be included in bylaws.
An education law passed by parliament in September puts all decisions about policy and curriculum in the hands of a body made up largely of government ministers. It banned students from forming unions and ignored calls for local languages to be used in instruction in ethnic states.
Aung said the government ignored the opinions of students, teachers and independent academics when drafting the bill.
“It is unreasonable that a body comprising government ministers will take charge of education policies, plans and curriculum,” Aung said.
Myanmar’s education system was once considered among the best in Asia, but military rulers shut universities and tightened control over learning during successive regime because they considered them hotbeds of discontent.
The threat to expand protests nationwide is sensitive in Myanmar, in part because students were at the forefront of pro-democracy protests in 1988 that were brutally crushed by the military.