02/03/2015, 00.00
MYANMAR
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After Myanmar government postponed talks on reform, students announce new protests

by Francis Khoo Thwe
This morning's meeting is cancelled. Government officials did not want student representatives to bring assistants with them. President Thein Sein appears to be behind the postponement until after 12 February. Hundreds of young people are ready to march again for democratic reform in education.

Yangon (AsiaNews) -  Burmese students, who have been in the streets for weeks to demand changes to the National Education Bill, plan to resume their protest after a scheduled meeting with the government was postponed.

During the press conference held outside the headquarters of the Education Ministry, student representatives confirmed the intention to continue their protest.

This follows the government's decision to cancel today's four-party meeting between government, parliamentarians, students and members of the National Network for Educational Reform (NNER).

Government officials postponed the meeting, ostensibly because they refused to allow the students to bring in participants not initially agreed to.

Student representatives said that "columns" of young activists are now ready for a new wave of protests, ready to march on Yangon, starting from different parts of the country, including Mandalay in the North, Bassein in the southwest, and Tenasserim in south.

Students have 11 demands, which they want included in the proposed National Education Bill in order to make it more democratic and respectful of young people's rights.

The demands include the extension of compulsory, free middle-school education, the decentralisation of decision-making power, the teaching of ethnic minorities in their own mother tongues, an increase in the educational budget and the right for students and teachers to set up their own unions.

Initially, the government - on President Thein Sein's urging - seemed willing to meet the students to discuss the matter. This was set to take place yesterday and today.

However, this morning came the decision to postpone the meeting, seemingly under instructions from the president, until after Union Day on 12 February, which this year coincides with the signing of a peace deal between the central government and ethnic rebels.

Since 2011, when the military dictatorship ended and a semi-civilian government was formed under President Thein Sein, a former junta general, Myanmar has been engaged in a number of policy and institutional reforms along democratic lines.

However, this process of change - which also led to the partial lifting of Western sanctions - has sharply slowed down. For instance, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still barred from running for president.

At one point, Myanmar's educational system was considered one of the best in Asia. However, decades of military dictatorship and strict control over high schools and universities have resulted in a decline that still weighs heavily on the quality of education and the freedom to teach.

The country's rulers are alarmed by students' threats to extend their protests to the entire country. In fact, students led pro-democracy protests in 1988 that ended in a bloodbath when the military cracked down on demonstrators.

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