As tensions increase between the government and students over education reform, police is set to act
Yangon (AsiaNews) - Police and students marching towards Yangon are now in the third day of a tense standoff near a monastery compound in the town of Letpadan, about 140 kilometres from Yangon, with neither side willing to budge. The students demand parliament adopt a more democratic education reform bill.
This morning, police formed a human chain across a road leading to Myanmar's biggest city, telling hundreds of student protesters that authorities would "take action" to re-establish law and order unless they dispersed. Determined to continue their march on Yangon, students responded defiantly, shouting "This is our cause! We will win!"
The demonstrators - who have been rallying for more than a month and gaining public sympathy - want the government to scrap a new education law that they say curbs academic freedom.
Student representatives accuse the government of violating a recently reached agreement on a draft reform bill. According to activists and academics, the Education Ministry is circulating a different draft from what was originally agreed upon. For their part, the authorities continue to issue threats against protesters.
Initially, four parties - government, parliament, students and the National Network for Educational Reform (NNER) - had reached an agreement on 14 February after long and hard talks and many days of tensions.
The deal includes many of the students' demands, like academic freedom for educational institutions and the right of students and teachers to form their own unions.
However, the government appears to have disavowed the new draft, describing it as a simple "proposal" and continued to work on its first draft, which has been rejected by the students.
Sources close to the student movement told AsiaNews that the situation in Letpadan "is very tense" because overnight "some police officers befriended the students," giving them soft drinks and chatting with them. This has set off alarm bells in the authorities.
Recently, education reform has become a lightning rod, a focal point for the country's unresolved conflicts and deep divisions. "This could lead to an authoritarian and violent turn of events," the source said.
Against this backdrop, the Burmese Catholic Church has been praying for a peacefully and broadly accepted school reform.
According to newly appointed Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon, education is one of the seven sorrows that afflict the country.
The prelate talked about these problems in his homily for the 113th annual pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Nyaunglebin.
In a not too distant past, Myanmar's educational system was one of Asia's best. However, decades of military rule and tight control over high schools and universities have resulted in a decline that still weighs heavily on the quality of education and academic freedom.
The country's current rulers are worried that the students' threats to take their protests to the whole country could get out of hand. They remember that student-led pro-democracy demonstrations ended in a bloodbath in 1988 when the military cracked down on protesters.