02/26/2015, 00.00
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Education Reform: Buddhist nationalists and government endanger agreement

by Francis Khoo Thwe
The government has been circulating a different draft from that one agreed with the students. It has not excluded taking legal action against protesting students. The latter have issued an ultimatum against the authorities. Fear is growing of a possible crackdown. Buddhist nationalist groups come out against the use of minority languages in education.

Yangon (AsiaNews) - Student leaders have accused the government of violating the recently reached agreement on education reform. Activists and academics have slammed the Education Ministry for circulating a draft proposal that is different from the one originally agreed upon.

Students and various NGOs have been in the streets for weeks pushing for greater accountability and democracy in education. However, the authorities are none too pleased and continue to issue threats against protesting students.

Buddhist nationalist movements have complicated matters because they object to student demands, claiming they damage the country's future and have disastrous effects.

The four parties - government, parliament, students and the National Network for Educational Reform (NNER) - had initially 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, when the government described it as a simple "proposal" and continued to work on its first draft, alarm bells were set off. Worse still, despite their promises, the authorities did not exclude suing students who took to the streets in protest.

In view of the situation, student leaders have issued an ultimatum to the government, saying it has until 28 February to withdraw the first draft and resume work on the four-party agreement.

Now the government has to decide whether to use force against protests or continue on the path of dialogue and negotiations, to reach a peaceful solution.

There is great concern that the 1988 crackdown might be repeated. But this time, things are different. Myanmar President Thein Sein's semi-civilian government would not be able to hide any brutal actions because of the widespread use of cameras and smartphones.

In fact, protests and international pressure are expected to encourage the government to maintain the dialogue and conciliatory tone.

One important element in the four-party proposal is that of allowing the country's 135 or so ethnic groups to use their native language in education. Such a proposal has sparked virulent opposition from Buddhist nationalist extremists.

The Ma Ba Tha movement, a group that has carried out a racist campaign against Rohingya Muslims in the past, is leading the charge against native languages. In an official statement, it criticised proposer changes to the bill without specifying them, suggesting that they would jeopardise the country's future.

For them, demands to use local languages ​​in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities has been highly controversial. Under article 134 of the education bill's original form, only Buddhist monastic schools would be able to teach in minority languages.

Amendments proposed by student leaders and educational NGOs would add another provision, article 34(j), to extend to all religious schools the right to teach ethnic minority children in their mother language.

Buddhist nationalists warn that if this principle were accepted, Arabic could be taught to Muslims in school, and this would lead to a rapid rise in fundamentalist ideology in the country.

By contrast, Christian organisations associated with Kachin, Chin and Karen ethnic groups pushed for the use of native languages in education since many of their members are Christian.

"In education, there is no discrimination and we found that children learn more effectively when the teacher teaches in their native language," independent education expert Thein Lwin told The Irrawaddy.

Once upon a time, Myanmar's educational system was one of the best in Asia. 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 about students' threats to take their protests to the whole country, mindful that student-led pro-democracy demonstrations ended in a bloodbath in 1988 when the military cracked down on protesters.

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