Myanmar’s People Learn to Negotiate
Students have used strikes and protests to put pressure on Myanmar’s government to engage in dialogue with its people, and create meaningful political change.
After a half-century of dictatorship, it is no wonder that the people of Myanmar don’t know about the art of negotiation. While the Myanmarese have learned how to rebel, resist, and refuse the dictatorship, they have had no opportunities for negotiation in their own lives, and so they have never learned how. Living in fear and oppression makes the Myanmarese closed off to learning things even from their own life experiences. The military regime taught its people to be brutal to dissidents, to imprison those who make demands, and to refuse responsibility for those who are vulnerable. It never taught them how they might negotiate change.
- Literature is an echoing voice of people’s thought. Myanmar literature and media have suffered a lot along with people during five decades of censorship. The majority of Myanmar’s population are voiceless, and many untold stories are yet to be discovered by local or international writers and journalists. Here let’s try to find and listen to what problems people are feeling, thinking, and facing regarding freedom of expression in everyday lives in Myanmar.
- Ma Thida is a Burmese human rights activist, writer, medical doctor, and former prisoner of consciousness. In 1993, she was sentenced to twenty years in Burma’s Insein Prison for actively supporting the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She served six years of her sentence, largely in solitary confinement and was released through the efforts of Amnesty International and PEN International. She has published nine books in Burmese and English, including The Sunflower (1999), The Roadmap (2011), and Sanchaung, Insein, Harvard (2012), a memoir. Ma Thida is currently president of PEN Myanmar.
Recently, however, a new education bill has provided the Myanmarese with an opportunity to problem solve, and learn diplomacy in the process. On September 30, 2014, the National Education Bill (NEB) was amended, to the objection of university students: under the amendment, university students are banned from having unions and engaging in political activities, and their academic freedom is limited. Students went on strike and formed eleven demands, which include increasing the education budget to twenty percent of the GDP instead of the current five percent, and allowing the use of ethnic languages and dialects in areas where ethnic minorities live.
The first general student strike, led by the Democratic Education Committee, occurred on November 14, 2014, the day US President Obama landed in Yangon. The strikers demanded a meeting between Myanmar’s Ministry of Education, Parliament, and representatives from the National Network of Education Reform (NNER) to discuss the best way to reform the national education law. NNER includes education activists from several civil society organizations, and 15 student leaders sit on their committee. However, the government and parliament rejected their demand, announcing via state-run media that the bill was already approved by the president and parliament. Since it would be impossible to reform, the state media said that the students ought to wait until the NEL’s by-laws were amended, which would supposedly happen soon. On November 16th, the student committee gave the government and parliament 60 days – until January 16th – to organize a meeting with the four requested parties.
On 16th January 2015, the government had made no response to the students’ demands, but the state media was running propaganda about the NEB. As a result, on January 20th, students began a 360-mile long march from Mandalay. In the following days, students from Ayeywarwaddy Delta, upper Myanmar (Magway’s Pakokku township) and southern Tanintharyi region (Dawei City) joined the march to meet in Yangon. Throughout their journey, police, security forces, and pro-government monks and laymen tried to block the protesters.
On February 1st, the government agreed to a four-party dialogue in Yangon if the students agreed to stop their marches. During the meeting, the first between the parties, the 15-member student committee asked the others to agree to preconditions for the meeting. Those preconditions included a guarantee that the government would take no action against the students who marched without an authorization to protest. The government requested an additional meeting on February 3rd in Naypyidaw. On the 3rd, students tried to include more members in the dialogue, without prior approval. As a result, the government postponed the dialogue indefinitely. However, the Ministry of Education tried to meet with members of the NNER to continue the dialogue, and on 11th February, the next round of the four-party dialogue began. The government and parliament agreed to all eleven of the students’ demands.
However, the protest marches continued, and headed to Yangon. Students expressed their concerns about the parliament passing the reform bill. Twenty-five percent of the parliament’s members are military. On February 12th, the government accused the students of being manipulated by political groups attempting to destabilize the country, and warned them to stop the marches. Strengthened by growing public support, which increased throughout the march, the students rejected the government’s demands.
On February 13th, the NNER, some members from the student committee, parliament, and the Ministry of Education began writing the bill reform draft. It was finished on February 15th. The document includes 73 articles, matching the students’ 11 demands. At the time, the march from Mandalay was near Min Hla, about 100 miles from Yangon. The three other marches from Dawei, Ayeywarwaddy and Pakokku were in Pegu, 47 miles from Yangon. The Mandalay March decided that they would continue the march into Yangon, but the other three stopped in Pegu, and waited to hear parliament’s response to the bill reform draft. There is some evidence that security forces tried to violently block the marchers at the entrance to Yangon. The government kept asking students to refuse to join the protests, and students kept saying that they will continue holding the protests to ensure that parliament meets their demands.
This is the very first time in Myanmar’s history where dialogue has been used to reform a bill or solve a political problem. Even during the 2008 amendment to the constitution, there was no hope for negotiation. This incident is generally seen as a big success for students and Myanmar’s people. Very few can appreciate the way the executive and legislative bodies decided to solve the problem through negotiation. Why? On February 15th, a small group of people in Yangon protested the students’ strike. People saw this protest as disingenuous, and it appears that some who participated may have been forced to do so by local authorities.
However, there are those who remain ignorant of the strength of a group of people, and how exerting pressure on the government can create political reform. These individuals do not want strikes to occur in Myanmar. The general population’s chronic fear forces them to see any protest as an uprising. In the past, dictatorships made propaganda about this concept. Although the success of student strikes mean much for Myanmar, the country and its people still have far to come in terms of negotiation and political reform.