Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kyrgyz Authorities Crush Teachers' Spirits
Kyrgyz teachers, once one of the most progressive forces in society, have been coming under intense pressure to toe the government line, a group of local civil rights activists and politicians were told last week.
An IWPR-led delegation, which visited the Aksy district to help defuse tensions sparked by violent clashes between locals and police in March, was shocked at the tactics employed by the authorities to get teachers' support for unpopular official initiatives and programmes.
The visiting group, sponsored by the Swiss government, had purposely come to the region to encourage teachers there to play a pivotal role in attempts to build bridges between locals and officials.
In March, policemen killed six civilians taking part in a demonstration against the arrest of a local parliamentary deputy, Azimbek Beknazarov, who had criticised a border agreement with China.
The protests sparked a wave of unrest in the region, which threatened to spread across the whole country. The turbulence was partly quelled with the release of Beknazarov and a handful of other concessions intended to improve the local economy.
But in a sign of the authorities' continued nervousness, they tried to prevent teachers from meeting the IWPR-led delegation in the villages of Kerben and Kara-Jygach. Only a fraction of those invited turned up, as they were obliged to attend a rival gathering organised by local officials.
Adakhan Madumarov, an opposition deputy from southern Kyrgyzstan, told IWPR, "The authorities use all their efforts to make sure that no one, especially not representatives of international organisations, get to speak to people in Aksy because they fear they will discover what's going on at first-hand."
The government was especially keen to sabotage the meetings because of the impending November 15 deadline set by Aksy protesters for the regime to punish high-ranking officials who ordered police to shoot at the protesters earlier in the year.
The few teachers who dared to meet the visitors spoke of the authorities' attempts to control them and deny them their basic rights.
The fear and despair they expressed was in sharp contrast to their former aspirations and optimism, which this reporter personally experienced on numerous visits to the region in the early- and mid-Nineties as an education minister and NGO activist respectively.
At that time, teachers were prominent among those embracing the reforms the post-independence government was undertaking. But when they began to fail, the regime resorted to Soviet-style governance and sought to mobilise teachers, especially those based in the provinces, for their own ends.
In the space of just a few years, many of the country's teachers, once some of the most educated, progressive and outspoken members of society, became timid, obedient and fearful of losing their jobs.
This reporter was aware of the government coercion but had not been aware of the scale of it and the level of the despondency and fear among the teachers until last week's gatherings.
At the meetings, a number of teachers spoke candidly about the pressures they had been subjected to.
"We are always forced to support the authorities, and take part in all their events. If we don't, we risk losing our jobs," said one. Another added, "In the past teachers could protect their rights and complain to the media or non-governmental organisations, now we are very isolated and no one seems to care about our suffering."
Teachers also spoke of some of the tactics employed by the government to make them toe the official line. They said they were ordered to subscribe to government publications, costing up to a third of their salaries; purchase books by officially endorsed poets, writers and politicians; and raise money for lavish meetings between local education chiefs and school inspectors.
One of the visiting party, the deputy head of the Swiss Cooperation Office, Irene Leibendgut, said she had been stunned by what she had heard, "I am now absolutely certain that the Aksy teachers need urgent assistance."
Another member of the delegation, the editor of the independent newspaper Daat, Erkinbek Okumaliev, said he was certain "the authorities may bring new problems on themselves if they don't stop bullying ordinary people".
And the teachers themselves warned that they were not prepared to be pushed around indefinitely and might follow the example of the Akys protesters. "We sympathise with those who speak out against the policies of the authorities, and if nothing changes (for the better) we will also be forced to protest," said one.
Chinara Jakypova is IWPR director in Kyrgyzstan
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