02/12/2015, 00.00
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Myanmar government and students agree on changes to proposed education law

Government officials accept student movement's demands as scores of students march for democratic changes to education bill. Now parliament has to vet the proposal, and its approval is not guaranteed. Student leader warns that until parliament approves, students will continue their march.

Yangon (AsiaNews) - Myanmar's government reached an agreement Wednesday with student protesters who have been marching towards Yangon to seek education reforms.

Under the new deal, the authorities agreed to allow schools and colleges to administer education policies independently, and let students and teachers set up their own unions.

The government also agreed to reinstate students expelled for political activism, and to increase education's share of the state budget to 20 per cent over five years.

Now, the bill has to go before Parliament in mid-march, and its approval is not guaranteed.

The agreement, which was was reached in a marathon negotiating session, comes after days of tensions and confrontation with public support increasing for the students.

The government appeared nervous about the growing public support, not only among ordinary Burmese, but also among cultural and religious elites, including several Buddhist leaders.

In view of this situation, it issued a special announcement last week, suggesting that students were being manipulated to stir up instability, though it did not identify by whom. Student leaders rejected the allegation, reiterating their claim that their struggle is to improve education in Myanmar.

"We are pleased with the agreement but we are very worried that the agreement reached today might be rejected by parliament," said Phyo Phyo Aung, one of the student leaders at Wednesday's meeting.

In fact, students now have to wait to see what the government and parliament will do. Meanwhile, they will continue their march towards Yangon,

One of the points the two sides agreed to concerns student right to form a free union. "That is important in democratic changes in education," said Thein Lwin, a member of the Network for National Education Reform (NNER), an organisation representing various educational, political and religious groups involved in the talks.

For him, "The main thing is to include students and teachers when writing future education laws". However, he warned that if parliament reneged on what it has agreed to, students would resume their protest.

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. Indeed, 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 rule and tight 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.

At the same time, the country's rulers are worried about students' threats to extend their protests to the entire 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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