YANGON -- A three-month stand-off between student protesters and the Myanmar government over education policy has rekindled student activism and set the stage for further heated debate, despite a landmark deal forged on Feb. 10 that would allow activists to help draft a revised education law.
In their recent negotiations, Myanmar's Education Ministry, the national parliament, education reform groups and student representatives agreed to revise a controversial law passed last year, and to submit those changes to the country's legislature in coming weeks.
Some participants in the talks remained cautious, voicing doubt that the compromise would yield results.
"This is just a preliminary agreement. We have to wait and see the parliamentary process," said Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a participant in the talks and general secretary of the central working committee of the key student body, the All-Burma Federation of Student Unions.
Marching on Yangon
Since November, demonstrators across the country have blasted Myanmar's new law that created a national education commission and opened the way for independently-run universities. Tensions increased in January when students from various parts of the country began marching to Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, to protest the government's refusal to discuss changing the contentious law.
Protesters said the law was initially drafted without their input and thus did not guarantee sufficient government spending on education, or meet earlier proposals to allow schools in the country's many ethnic regions to teach in vernacular languages.
But the Feb. 10 deal was a victory of sorts for advocates of education reform, allowing their input for the first time in revising the education law, due for presentation to lawmakers in the current session of parliament. Thein Lwin, spokesperson for the National Network for Education Reform and a leading advocate of education reform, said he was working to help revise the law, and that negotiations with the government had seen the incorporation of the reformists' demands into the revised draft.
In an unlikely twist in the politics of education reform, Thein Lwin has been demoted by the National League for Democracy, the party led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, over his outspoken role in the education reform process.
According to Myanmar media reports, Suu Kyi -- a professed advocate of education reform -- changed tack from her earlier enthusiasm to amend the laws and had told Thein Lwin that if he wanted to work for NNER or promote the organization's cause, he would have to give up his membership of the pary's central executive committee, although he could remain an "ordinary member" of the NLD. Her unexpected shift reinforced views among some critics that she is now more willing to make compromises to gain support from various political quarters.
Student protests have played a pivotal part in Myanmar's history. Born 100 years ago last weekend, national independence hero Aung San, Suu Kyi's late father, began his political career as a student demonstrator against British colonial rule.
In 1988, students helped lead mass protests against the Ne Win government but were subdued after the army fired on and arrested thousands of demonstrators. In subsequent years, the military junta closed universities, denouncing education institutions as hotbeds of dissent.
Zaw Htay, a senior officer in President Thein Sein's administration, told the Nikkei Asian Review that given that troubled history, the deal between the government and the protestors was historic.
"There has never been a compromise like this between the government and students in our history," said Zaw Htay, who comments regularly on Facebook under the sobriquet "Major Zaw," referring to his previous army career.
In mid-February, in comments that evoked attitudes under the old junta toward protesters, the government accused unnamed political activists of "hijacking" the student protests to foment unrest.
Phyoe Phyoe Aung of the national student body said that no outside parties had infiltrated the student protests and that such remarks could have jeopardized prospects for the talks.
"These comments could provoke violence against the students," the 26-year-old former political prisoner told the NAR.
Adding to the tensions, the Myanmar government said on Feb. 13 that it would not allow students from outside Yangon to enter the city, a warning repeated just days later. By Feb. 17, students who had been marching from the south of Myanmar to Yangon agreed to halt their protest, pending the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary vote on the revised education law.
Yet the largest group, which began marching from Myanmar's second city Mandalay, in the country's central-west region, are pressing on toward Yangon, pausing their protest for 10 days to allow students sit exams in late February.
Before the 1962 coup, Myanmar was widely praised for its solid education system, regarded by many regional educators as Southeast Asia's best. But five decades of economic mismanagement and military dictatorship drained education spending, causing standards to plummet. The current government says it wants to improve learning and said the new law will return schools to the pre-junta standards.
The original education law, passed in September 2014, proclaimed a goal to "create international-standard learning environments and to upgrade the quality of teaching, learning, research and administration through the effective use of information and communication technology," and in turn, to "produce human resources with right holistic thinking and good character" to usher modern developments in the nation.
However, critics of the law say these aims do not reach far enough and have called for an increase in education spending over time to 20% of the annual national budget. Many have also urged the government to permit schools in ethnic areas to teach in ethnic minority languages.
About 40% of Myanmar's 51 million people are thought to be ethnic minorities, speaking languages such as Shan, Kayin and Mon. A deal to allow teaching in these languages -- currently severely restricted -- could boost prospects for a peace agreement between the Myanmar government and the dozen or so ethnic minority militias that maintain fiefdoms in the rugged borderlands alongside China, India and Thailand.
Part of the Feb. 10 agreement included government pledges to allow minority language schooling and to increase education spending to 20% of the state's budget within five years. Education spending for the fiscal year 2015-16 is scheduled to rise 21% from the previous year to $1.4 billion, or just over 6% of overall spending but a little over half of the $2.7 billion set to be allocated to the military.
Aung Tun Thet, a prominent presidential economic adviser who moderated the Feb. 10 meeting, told the Nikkei Asian Review that he agreed that Myanmar needed to increase spending rapidly and boost school standards if the country is to meet ambitious economic targets, including aspirations to more than triple the country's $60 billion economy by 2030.
"I strongly believe that all sectors are related," he added. "We want and need to have economic growth, but this will only happen if we can provide better education for our young people."
The education protests first began during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar last November, amid concerns that Myanmar's reforms had stalled ahead of the general election scheduled for late 2015.
Reflecting ongoing distrust of the government's intentions among some reformists, prominent lawyer and former political prisoner Robert San Aung, who joined a group of around 300 education reform protesters in a Feb. 8 march across Yangon, reacted cautiously to last weeks' agreement, saying: "Our government is very tricky."
Aung Tun Thet, meanwhile, linked education reform to economic considerations, noting that even if parliament agreed to increase education spending, the amount the government could spend on schools would depend on the pace of Myanmar's economic growth. Spending 20% of the annual budget on education, according to Aung Tun Thet, "is an aspiration, but we will try to get there as quickly as possible."
In a mid-February report on Myanmar, the International Monetary Fund said the country's economic outlook remained favorable, but warned that immediate risks to growth had increased. For the year ahead, the IMF predicts that the growth rate will fall back, from 8.3% in 2013-14 to 7.8% in 2014-15.
Whether or not the education stand-off is over for now will depend on how parliamentarians react to the revised law. The legislature is dominated by the military and its affiliate, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a party itself split between reformists and those more sympathetic to the old, junta era.
"So far, this is just a paper agreement, so we will wait and see what the parliament does," Robert San Aung told the Nikkei Asia Review.