Myanmar upper house approves student unions

27 March 2015
Myanmar upper house approves student unions
Students walk along the Adipadi road of Yangon University in Yangon, Myanmar, December 5, 2013. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Proposals to allow Myanmar students to form unions for the first time in decades passed their first parliamentary hurdle on March 26 in amendments to an education bill that has sparked protests which saw dozens of activists arrested.
The move comes a day after more than 60 campaigners, detained during a violent police crackdown on their protest in early March, appeared at a court in the central town of Letpadan facing charges that could see them jailed for nearly a decade. 
Myanmar MPs are redrafting the controversial education bill in response to an outcry from students and activists, who have staged months of protests in the former military-run state.
Scenes of baton-wielding police violently quelling two recent rallies over education reform have raised international concern and fears that the government is resorting to junta-era tactics. 
March 26's vote in the upper house - which will be followed by further votes in the lower and combined houses - gave the nod to an amendment allowing "the right to freely found teachers' and students' unions in higher education".
But the revised bill looks set to fall short of other key demands from education activists, as conservative forces sought to dampen the amendments.
Myanmar's quasi-civilian government introduced much-praised reforms after a half-century of military rule ended in 2011. But some observers fear these are stalling as the country heads towards a landmark election later this year.
The upper house balked at including a reference to "free thinking" as a learning goal in the amended bill -- a key demand of education activists pushing for greater academic freedom.
In an account of the debates published in state media on Thursday, military MP Major Aung Ko Min spoke out against the term, saying this would lead to "wrong thinking" in children.
He instead suggested "all-round systematic thinking", according to the Global New Light of Myanmar.
"I believe about three quarters of the students' demands have been met through compromise," U Myat Nyanna Soe, secretary of the upper house bill committee, told journalists at the parliament.
He added that he was "truly sorry" about the arrests of protesters in recent weeks and stressed that the government, not parliament, was behind the action.
More than 100 demonstrators were arrested after the March 10 Letpadan crackdown, with dozens of them still detained in central Tharrawaddy prison and allowed only fleeting contact with loved ones.
Students have long been at the forefront of political action in the nation's turbulent history, including during mass 1988 rallies which were brutally quashed by the military.