Myanmar students stage illegal protest against "undemocratic" education bill

Dozens of university students march in a protest against the proposed national education bill in Yangon on Nov 17, 2014. Scores of Myanmar students rallied illegally in Yangon on Monday, Nov 17, against a new education bill they describe as unde
Dozens of university students march in a protest against the proposed national education bill in Yangon on Nov 17, 2014. Scores of Myanmar students rallied illegally in Yangon on Monday, Nov 17, against a new education bill they describe as undemocratic. -- PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Scores of Myanmar students rallied illegally in Yangon Monday against a new education bill they describe as undemocratic, the latest in a series of protests that began during a visit by US President Barack Obama.

Young activists, some holding banners reading "We need Academic Freedom" and "Fight for Democratic Education", staged a peaceful march across the city centre to call for the education system to be reformed.

The protest was held without official permission - an arrestable offence in the former junta-run nation.

"Education is very important to our country's future. Schools need to be democratic if we are to become a democratic country," said Phyo Phyo Aung, secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. She said the group had not applied for official permission to protest.

"We may be arrested and sent to jail, or our protest may be broken up by force, but whatever happens we have decided to face it," added the 26-year-old technology student, whose own studies were delayed by a previous stint in prison for her activism.

Monday's rally was the latest in a series of bold demonstrations that began with a small rally last Friday, coinciding a speech by Mr Obama to young people at Yangon University.

The US leader was visiting Myanmar to attend regional summits and push the quasi-civilian government to move faster on reforms.

Mr Obama said rebuilding an education system degraded by generals nervous of the power of students was one of Myanmar's biggest challenges, and warned against the impulse of central governments to "narrow the learning process".

"I think that that's something that I'm sure university students here in Myanmar will want to express during the course of this transition period," he said.

A day later dozens of students climbed the gates of Yangon University and briefly rallied within the compound in a potent gesture evoking the central role student protest has played in Myanmar's modern history.

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 swept away in response to reforms, including releasing most political prisoners and allowing Ms Suu Kyi into parliament.

But there are growing concerns that the democratic transition is stalling. Obama raised particular concern over media freedom and the plight of stateless Rohingya Muslims in unrest-torn Rakhine state.

Protesters have also been arrested across the country in recent months, mainly for demonstrating about land disputes without permission.