The distance between Burma’s two biggest cities, Mandalay and Yangon, is considerable: over 400 miles. Yet university students have undertaken a march from one to the other, rallying support from schools along the way in the hopes of demonstrating nationwide opposition to new education legislation that restricts the formation of student unions and centralizes control over the education system.
It’s no secret that Burma’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy has been stunted and shaky. Human rights abuses are still rife across the country. Ethnic minority groups continue to clash with state forces, and even small protests can all too quickly turn deadly.
The National Education Law approved by Parliament in September last year, though, has done its part to draw university students out of the woodwork and into the open. They believe the law excessively centralizes control over education and has left them with a lack of choice. Rather than choose courses based on their interests and desires, students are placed according to their grades.
It’s a situation that frustrates student protester Thint Myat, an information technology student, who would rather be studying architecture. Burma’s system of rote-learning, he feels, only encourages young Burmese students to uncritically regurgitate facts, instead of engaging with what they’re being taught.
“They don’t let us think and write what we know. They just want us to write according to the textbook,” he said. “The more stupid students become, the less interested they are in politics. That’s how the government keeps their power.”
Fed up, the students are demanding that academic freedom be respected, and the right to form student unions that will not be restricted from speaking out on political issues. Students have had a long history of spearheading pro-democracy movements in Burma, and this generation is no longer willing to be sidelined. Picking up the mantle from their predecessors, they want a voice and a presence in national politics.
A protest march from Mandalay to Yangon was launched on January 20 after the government failed to respond to student demands to re-draft the law. It’s hard to tell how many students are involved — some reports suggest that a hundred students are leading the march, but the number of people ebbs and flows as it passes through towns and villages where locals momentarily join in a show of support.
They aren’t the only ones: protesters have also set off from the north, south and southwest. They plan to eventually converge in Yangon, where hundreds of students, academics and citizens staged a protest on February 8 in solidarity with their marching compatriots.
These protests might be the students’ best bet for the moment, as talks with the government haven’t been going well. The government claims that the students failed to show up at a meeting, but the students’ spokesperson, Thein Lwin, told the Democratic Voice of Burma that the government had suspended the talks after disagreements over the number of people allowed to be present at the meeting. “We were waiting outside the meeting, but we were not allowed access,” he said.
Talks are set to resume on February 11, but the state has also reverted to warnings and attempts to discredit the movement. Officials have met with parents in a bid to persuade them to stop their children from joining the protests. In keeping with the playbook of authoritarian governments, the Burmese information ministry has also accused the movement of having been manipulated by “political organizations” to “create unrest.”
Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership — a network of Asia-Pacific organizations supporting the struggle for democracy in Burma — was a student leader in the 1988 uprisings that saw Aung San Suu Kyi emerge as an icon of the Burmese struggle for democracy. She published a post on Facebook on February 7 that urged the international community to take the government’s pronouncements with a grain of salt. Such attempts, she pointed out, were old tactics that were employed during the student-led uprising in 1988.
“Back in 1988, we organized as students with our own mind and determination for what we believed is right,” she wrote. “I respect the students’ independent stand and free spirit because I was a student!”
It’s a tricky situation that the students have to navigate. Burma is not known for going easy on protesters, and worries about violence and fatalities are very real. Protesters are aware of being watched by the police, and conscious that their gatherings could be targeted by pro-government thugs. But they’re unwilling to give up the struggle. The marching protesters continue to make their way to Yangon, and there is talk of an occupation when they arrive. Acutely aware of the importance of being able to participate in their own country’s politics, the students are adamant that their right to organize be respected.
“Without politics, no union can be organized,” wrote Thint Myat. “They want us to go with the flow of this dictatorship government and we don’t accept that. That’s why we need to put the union part in the bill, for us to organize freely.”
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