Myanmar regresses

Myanmar regresses

It is, arguably, the supreme irony of Asean politics that the Thai military is directing efforts to bring about a peaceful constitutional government, while Myanmar's elected authorities have resorted once again to brutally beating, torturing and imprisoning young protesters. Our western neighbour, so recently emerged from 50 years of violent military rule, has very much halted democratic reform and returned to its old ways.

Myanmar police last week attacked students who were protesting against new laws that allegedly stifle academic freedom. Many were hurt and dozens disappeared into the country's notorious prison system. The government has made no move to control this excessive abuse of state power. There will be trials, beginning this week, but it can be assumed that the courts, based on the beatings and brutal attacks seen over the past week, will show neither understanding nor pity. Meanwhile, it seems certain that political prisoners will grow in number yet again.

Last week's protests began in the town of Letpadan, 140 kilometres north of Yangon. They then spread into the former capital, where the most prominent universities are located. Students tried to negotiate with police and gain permission for protests against planned new education laws. Police refused to allow them to raise flags, sing songs or travel in convoys. Entirely predictably, student activists protested against these rules, and tried to break police lines. Authorities responded unpredictably, with numerous baton charges. The Ministry of Information, arguably the greatest source of misinformation, said that "127 people were detained". Witnesses put the number in the hundreds, including dozens of young women.

Discontent began in Mandalay in January, around the same time that diplomats began to report a disquieting halt in democratic reforms in the country. As they have done since the 1980s, young people took the lead in street rallies and protests. But the government's new move last month to grab control and centralise education focused the issues and galvanised the protesters.

In essence, new bills by President Thein Sein and his cabinet would give the Ministry of Education greater control over all aspects of higher education.

Opponents of the plans propose, instead, that individual universities be given more power over their own campuses and classrooms. The government is poised to take over supervision of all student unions and every aspect of teaching in languages of the country's ethnic minorities. Activists demand the opposite: that every student union should be independent, and universities should be free to handle education in minority languages.

This may seem petty as far as a flash point for demonstrations is concerned. But control of Myanmar schools after the 1962 military coup was almost total. Gen Thein Sein's elected government is giving up power over universities only reluctantly. Add to that a general disappointment over the now-obvious halt in Myanmar political reform, and it is clear that the country faces a clear and present danger of fresh instability, fuelled by public protests.

The importance of political reform in Myanmar is clear, as is the distaste at the use of state violence against the protesters. The European Union, which recently has run programmes to train Myanmar police, objected to the crackdowns. The US and Britain, which still have reservations about the country's state security offices, also protested. The National League for Democracy, the political outfit headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, accused the government of acting outside the law and using "procedures like those under military rule". Myanmar is a nation yearning for democratic reform and freedom. But right now it sits dangerously close to regressing to a dictatorship again.

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