Myanmar President Thein Sein urges education law rethink in face of student protests

Myanmar's President Thein Sein waits for delegates to arrive for the 17th ASEAN-China Summit during the 25th ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw on Nov 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Myanmar's President Thein Sein waits for delegates to arrive for the 17th ASEAN-China Summit during the 25th ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw on Nov 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's president has called on parliament to rethink aspects of a new education bill in the face of renewed student protests, state-backed media said Wednesday, as activists vowed to continue demonstrations.

President Thein Sein asked lawmakers to reconsider some sections of the controversial bill, saying amendments would "contribute towards peace and stability, allowing students to pursue their education peacefully", according to an information ministry statement published in the Global New Light of Myanmar.

On Tuesday dozens of young campaigners began an unauthorised cross-country protest march to the commercial hub Yangon, in a show of defiance by students, who have historically been at the forefront of political activism in the former junta-run nation.

Protesters said the statement - which suggested adding "inclusive education" to the law without elaborating on who would be affected - fell short of their demands.

"It's not enough. We need a genuine way to change," Phyo Phyo Aung, secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, told AFP by phone from the central town of Kyaukse as around a hundred protesters made their way south from the second city of Mandalay.

Students, who staged almost a week of rallies in November over the law which they say curbs academic freedom, renewed their campaign Tuesday, saying that government had failed to meet their demands for talks.

They want the law altered to include free and compulsory education until children reach their early teens, permission to form student and teacher unions, and teaching in ethnic minority languages.

Myanmar was rocked by massive student-led demonstrations against authoritarianism in 1988 that propelled Aung San Suu Kyi into the democracy fight, but were ended with a brutal military crackdown.

Outright army rule ended in 2011 and the country has seen Western sanctions largely dropped in response to reforms, including releasing most political prisoners and allowing Suu Kyi into parliament.

But arrests of journalists and protesters in recent months have spurred growing concern the democratic transition is stalling.

Students plan to take around two weeks to complete the walk and then set up protest camp in Yangon.