Myanmar students exit education bill hearing in solidarity with protesters

YANGON - Myanmar student leaders boycotted a parliamentary hearing on a controversial education bill on Thursday, saying they would not take part until police allow student protesters to march to the commercial capital, Yangon.

About 200 students have been locked in a standoff with police this week outside a Buddhist monastery in the town of Letpadan, about 140 km (90 miles) from Yangon. They are protesting against the education bill that they say limits academic independence by stifling student unions and putting decision-making power in the hands of the Education Ministry rather than universities.

The government has barred them from Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and the site of numerous student-led demonstrations, including those in 1988 that sparked a pro-democracy movement that spread throughout the military-ruled country.

Parliament began discussing the draft bill on Thursday and invited student representatives to attend, but student leader Nan Lynn said his delegation walked out to show solidarity with the protesters. "Although we welcome the fact that there have been discussions in parliament being held transparently on this matter for the first time, we cannot attend the hearing today because of the situation with the security forces and our students down there in Letpadan," he told Reuters.

Military leaders brutally suppressed the 1988 protests and were subsequently overthrown by another group of generals who continued to restrict democratic freedoms and imprisoned thousands of activists, artists and writers.

A semi-civilian reformist government took power in 2011 after 49 years of military rule and its response to the current student protests has been decidedly more muted.

Police in Letpadan have blockaded student demonstrators and some supporters, placing barriers and vehicles in the street to restrict their movement, said Phyo Phyo Aung, of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions.

She said there was no reason the protesters should not be allowed to continue to Yangon where they hoped to travel by bus while playing student union songs through loudspeakers and flying red flags emblazoned with the symbol of the student movement, a golden peacock. "It's nonsense," she said on the phone from the protest site. "It's really easy to give in to these simple demands, but the government still refuses." The students began marching more than a month ago from the central city of Mandalay.