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Europe: wake up to the situation of students in Burma!

RANGOON – The European Students’ Union (ESU) is saddened by the recent events that have taken place in Burma since our latest statement from the 5th of February. The time has come when the international community will now have to react and demand progress, if we want to see a democratic education system emerge.

The Burmese government remains determined to adopt a new National Education Law, while trying to limit the involvement of students. The Burmese government has shown disrespect of some of the most fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, in achieving this. ESU strongly condemns this approach, as well as the recent attacks on student activists. The new law is believed to severely undermine the academic freedom in Burma as it centralises authority, places restrictions on the formation of student and teacher unions, and makes curriculums rigid.

 (Sai Zaw / Irrawaddy)

Student protests have been taking place across the country since November 2014 and has continued to gather broader public support in the process. The protests come out of an education system, that is in desperate need of reforms, in order to address quality and access issues especially. The students have already put forward eleven demands to be included in the reform (see below), but so far the government has not made any concessions towards the students.

ESU and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) believes it is now time for the international community to make demands towards the Burmese government regarding the content and inclusion of students’ perspectives in the reform process, if they are to continue to receive support. It is evident that under current conditions the government does not wish to create an education system that fosters active, responsible, open-minded members of society.

Peaceful student protests dissolved

Perhaps most evident of the problems at hand is the case of the student march towards Yangon: On Tuesday the 3rd of February an otherwise peaceful march organised by the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE)  was denied to continue from the city of Letpadan in the North towards Yangon, where student representatives were scheduled to participate in the negotiations regarding the new draft National  (Sai Zaw / Irrawaddy)

Education Law. Instead, the students organised a peaceful sit-in demonstration, that however, came to an abrupt end a week later when the police dissolved the protests using disproportional power, as pictures released by media also show.

127 student activists were jailed and charged with crimes relating to illegal assembly and rioting. 98 of the activists and a further 3 student leaders remain jailed and as a consequence the Democracy Education Initiative Committee and National Network for Education Reform  have not been participating in government negotiations demanding the immediate release of all the remaining 98 student activists before they want to meet again.

Students beaten by police

A leader from ABFSU, who escaped the police crackdown and has gone underground, tells:

“The riot police crackdown was brutal, as you can also see from pictures. Several students were severely damaged by police beating. Since then no members of parliament or persons from the executive have even mentioned the events.”

He continues to talk about the current situation:

“Some students managed to escape the crackdown, some because they were not there at the day and others because they avoided caption. About 30 students are now hiding, fearing persecution if they get caught, as it has already happened to some. It is important to stop the government from arresting and charging more protesters.”

Responsibility to react

 (Sai Zaw / Irrawaddy)

The international community as a whole, but especially the financial donors from Europe, now have a responsibility to react. Students and progressive education systems have traditionally been the key in achieving successful transitions to democracy, and because of this we cannot allow the Burmese government to move back on this area.

The government has to release all the remaining student activists and recognise students as legitimate negotiations partners. The students have put forward eleven demands for an education reform (see below), but so far the government has only blamed the students for unrest and jailed them, and not dared to meet them to discuss the issues raised.

European Ministers and the European Union have just recently committed to citizenship and school governance in the recent “Declaration on Promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education” as well as in the the UNESCO Paris Outcome Document on education post-2015. If these commitments are to continue to ring true, Europe needs to support the Burmese students in their efforts as much as possible and put all possible pressure on the Burmese government.

The students’ demands

1.    Faculty and student representatives should be allowed to participate in the drafting process of all legislations and policies on education.
2.    The existence of student and faculty unions should be permitted and legalised officially.
3.    The current composition of the National Education Commission and the Universities Coordination and Cooperation Committee needs to be discussed.
4.    Administrative and managerial power must be decentralised.
5.    Significant changes must be made to the university admissions and examinations.
6.    New methods of teaching or pedagogy that foster independent thinking introduced.
7. To adopt mother-tongue based multi-lingual education system
8. To adopt inclusive education system (clearly).
9.    Students that have been expelled due to political activism must be re-instated.
10.    The government should invest twenty percent of its budget in education (as recommended in the Dakar Declaration).
11.    Compulsory free schooling should be raised from the 4th to 8th Standard.


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