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Minister of Home Affairs Lt-Gen Ko Ko has described the students taking part in recent protests against the National Education Law as “puppets” of political parties and “foreign organisations”.
In an interview published by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Saturday, reflecting comments from the government the day before, he said, “On analysing the situation, we see that those who are behind the scene include extremists, who trained their children to be a new generation using methods of confrontation, and techniques of … fighting. Sometimes, we can see these are the hands of foreign organisations.”
Student groups have responded to the original comments, made in statements by the Ministry of Education and the Press Release Team of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and reported in state media on Friday, saying that the allegations are a ruse to justify a crackdown.
In Saturday’s interview, Ko Ko describes the demonstrations as a threat to Burma’s democratic transition, saying: “This period of transition has only been ongoing for four years. We have little experience. Under the current government, while working to develop stability and security in the country, we face threats and challenges. The current threat is the student demonstrations protesting against the National Education Law.”
The minister went on to say that the student columns protesting around the country have been warned that their rallies are illegal. “The respective township administrations have let the students know at the entrances to township areas and towns that they are demonstrating illegally,” he said in the interview.
Ko Ko emphasised that the government is seeking a peaceful resolution, but has pledged to pursue those involved in certain aspects of the demonstrations.
“We are trying to solve the problems peacefully in negotiations. But those who have committed crimes such as taking down the national flag will be charged,” he said.
In the central Burmese city of Mandalay last month, students pulled down the national flag at a university in Myingyan and replaced it with one featuring the student emblem of a fighting peacock.
The latest government comments come after the Committee for Democracy Education Movement (CDEM), who have been spearheading the demonstrations for reform of the National Education Law, responded to official claims that the protests had been “masterminded” by political parties and “so-called students.”
Ye Yint Kyaw, a spokesperson of the CDEM and a participant in the protest column marching from Mandalay to Rangoon, said, “This indicates that the quasi-civilian government still has the same attitude as its former self: the military regime, who always tried to smear public movements, political parties and students. Alleging that there is someone masterminding what we are doing is essentially the same as saying we are idiots.
“If we just wanted to provoke unrest, we wouldn’t bother marching 200 miles to Rangoon. We could just start riots where we are, in Rangoon or Mandalay. In the context of the [government’s] actions in the past, they are creating a pretext – that there are bad elements among us – so they can crack down our protests.”
Ye Yint Kyaw told DVB that the students will march on no matter what.
“We will march on, and let people decide whether there are instigators behind us as the government claimed, or whether are just doing this for what we believe,” he said. “We will show that we are willing to sacrifice our lives for what we believe.”
Around 800 local residents accompanied the Mandalay protest column as it departed Magwe Division’s Taungdwingyi town on Friday morning.
“Students are the heart of the people, and they have always had support from the people in various struggles throughout our history,” said a local man who joined the march.
“They have steadfastly sacrificed themselves and spearheaded movements for the needs of the people and the country. We sympathise with them and would like to show our solidarity.”
The protestors were scheduled to spend Friday night in a village named Satthwa as they made their way towards the town of Aunglan. According to local sources, around 200 riot police and five fire trucks had been deployed in the area by authorities.