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Growing backlash after students expelled for protests over education budget

Students at the Sagaing University of Education protest on Tuesday.

Anger is growing after dozens of university enrollees were expelled in recent days for demanding an increase to Burma’s national education budget, reviving a proud but often fraught tradition of student protest that has in the past both unseated dictators and killed thousands of young dissidents.

At a demonstration on Tuesday morning, scores of students from the Sagaing University of Education called for the readmission of 48 student protesters booted from their respective schools this month for urging that Burma’s relatively meagre education budget be boosted. Starting at the convocation hall of the university, located in the Sagaing Region capital of the same name, the students marched across the campus, bearing signs and banners historically associated with the student movement.

“We strongly object to the dismissal of the 48 students from various universities. We condemn such an act,” said Thu Wai Lwin, secretary of the Students’ Union of Sagaing University of Education. “We are calling for the authorities to readmit the dismissed student protesters, to increase the education budget and to stop dismissing students for staging protests.”

The more than 100 students from the Sagaing University of Education participating in the rally vowed to continue protesting until their three demands are met. At the time of reporting, three representatives of the Students’ Union and Professor Saw Pyone Naing were holding discussions inside the university’s administrative office.

Meanwhile, the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) coalition also weighed in to oppose the dismissals — specifically of several students at Yadanabon University in Mandalay who appear to have inspired similar protests subsequently at other institutions of higher learning in Burma.

“NNER believes that the students exercised their freedom of expression by peacefully protesting,” read a statement from the network dated 29 January. “Coercive detention and dismissal of student protesters from their respective universities is not in line with democratic traditions and standards; such measures were used by previous dictatorial regimes.”

The NNER called for the expelled students’ reinstatement “without any limitations as soon as possible,” and for the abolition of “laws and regulations that violate the dignity of the students, and to protect the rights of the students.”

“We are outraged to witness the use of coercive means against students instead of supporting them for acting responsibly to bring about educational reform,” said the statement, which also criticised the highly centralised nature of Burma’s education system, a long-held lament of reform advocates.

It was the drafting and ultimate passage of a National Education Law in 2015 that last sparked widespread student protests, under the previous government. That movement was effectively quashed when police on 10 March of that year cracked down violently on a group of protesters who were on a march from Mandalay to Yangon.

Burma’s campuses have been incubators of dissent dating back to the colonial era, when young pro-independence agitators such as founding father General Aung San — then a student — organised sentiment against the occupying British in the 1930s.

About a half-century later, in 1988, a student-led pro-democracy movement toppled the military regime of General Ne Win, but was violently put down by the junta that took the deposed leader’s place.

With reporting by Aung Aung Naing