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Protesting Students and Teachers in Myanmar Reject Law They Claim Will Strengthen Junta-Era Schooling System

Students Protesting Outside the Dagon University in Yangon. Photo from Facebook page of Confederation of University Student Unions.

Students protesting outside the Dagon University in Yangon. Photo from Facebook page of Confederation of University Student Unions.

The new National Education Bill of Myanmar, which was passed in late July this year and is currently awaiting the president's approval, is considered by some students, teachers and civil society organizations as a violation of human rights standards.

The elements of the legislation that are deemed controversial include restriction on the forming of student societies, centralization of the education system and emphasis on government control, marginalization of ethnic education and their languages, and the lack of transparency in the process.

In early September, protests and demonstrations against the bill were organized in front of universities by students in Mandalay, Sagaing and Yangon, among others. The opposition was later joined by several civil societies organization. Aung Myo Min, the director of the Equality Myanmar, thinks that the bill does not meet the human rights standards and failed to incorporate the suggestions of community-based organizations. He said:

Analyzing the bill, we have noticed that the National Education Bill has included [policies] that are not in keeping with the will of community-based organization. As a human rights activist, [I have] found that it’s a little bit slack on human rights standards, so we’ve taken a stand in favor of changes.

The latest support for the campaign came from the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation which plans to join the protests if the bill is not going to be revised in Parliament. In their official Facebook page, Myanmar Teachers’ Federation declared:

We have learned that student associations around the country are determined to accelerate the peaceful protests if the authorities (will force the passage) of the bill, neglecting the wishes of the students, teachers and parents and deviating from the standards of Democracy; we fully support this determination.

Nandar Phone Myint from Irrawaddy Magazine wrote an article, explaining the controversial aspects of the bill and why it revived the centralized control of the education system by the state:

The reason the National Education Bill cannot progress is that it was drafted mainly by the people who had a very influential and major role in the education system during the junta's rule and they have incorporated into the education bill their entrenched predisposition for centralized rule and imposition of restrictions.

The military took power in 1962 and it imposed absolute control in the country for the next three decades. A civilian election was held in 2010 but the government is still backed by the military.

During the junta's era, universities were established outside the city to prevent students from gathering to protest.

Meanwhile, the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), which was formed in 2012 as an independent and diverse network of university professors, lecturers, Buddhist monks, ethnic education groups, opposition groups, teachers and students, has held seminars across the country to discuss education reforms that the country should pursue. They noted in particular that the nature of the Education Bill is discriminatory against students with special needs:

Despite the country's obligation to implement an inclusive education for disabled students in compliance to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN-CRPD), the proposed legislation of the government states that a separate education will be given to disabled children with “special education programme”, which is a discrimination. This must be amended.

The network also drafted an educational policy and submitted it for parliamentary review. In their statement they also want that three languages, namely, ethnic native, Myanmar and English languages, to be integrated in the school curriculum for ethnic children.

Dr. Thein Lwin from NNER also said that students must be encouraged in the new education system to develop critical thinking skills:

Students need to have the chance to share their life experiences in relation to the lessons they learn inside the classroom. Currently, many teachers don’t approve of students’ answers if they are different from their teaching notes, which prevents students to develop critical thinking skills.

The current education system of Myanmar is long overdue for reform from the tightly controlled schooling system which marginalizes ethnic culture and language. It is also highly criticized for suppressing creativity and critical thinking by emphasizing rote learning and memorization.

The series of protests by students, teachers, academics and civil society groups shows the broad challenge raised against the decades-long authoritarian style education system implemented by the junta; and at the same time it reflects the government's failure to listen to the voices of the people.

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