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Turkmen Party Poopers

Education ministry's attempt to outlaw school-leavers' celebrations seen as another attack on civil liberties.
By Rejep Saparov

More than 100,000 Turkmen school pupils have been stopped from celebrating their upcoming graduations by order of the education ministry.


But the prohibition on parties and gatherings has come in a roundabout manner. Instead of issuing a blanket ban, the ministry has instructed teachers to get parents to write letters asking that all graduation celebrations be cancelled.


One Ashgabat secondary school teacher, who did not want to be named, told IWPR, "The head of our school gave all staff a deadline of May 20 to gather these statements."


An education official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to IWPR that the ministry had received these instructions from the highest level. "While many of my colleagues do not agree with these orders, we can't discuss or criticise them," he said.


The Turkmen school year ends on May 24, and each of the former Soviet republic's 1,700 schools traditionally sounds a "last bell" to salute final year students, who must then sit a series of exams in June before receiving their school-leaving certificate.


Previously, this would be marked by a graduation ball for the successful pupils, their favourite teachers and members of the parents' committee. This celebration usually lasts all night, ending with the attendees seeing the sunrise together, as a symbol of their rite of passage into adulthood.


The education ministry tried to clamp down on such activities last year, by ordering all restaurant and café owners to close down by 3am at the latest. But the pupils themselves are determined to resist what they see as interference from the state.


"If anyone asks us what we're celebrating, we're going to say that it is a friend's birthday," one defiant student told IWPR. Another said that his classmates were going to get around the ban by holding their party at home.


However, worried parents may step in to keep their children from falling foul of the authorities. "I know that the children have decided to get together in private homes and claim that they're celebrating a birthday, but I also know that the police will be going around apartments where music is playing loudly, and asking the reasons for the celebration. If caught, the youngsters may face some problems," said one father.


Local observers see the education officials' decision as yet another attempt to limit the Turkmen people's rights and freedoms.


A recent decree passed by President Saparmurat Niazov forbade large social gatherings - such as weddings, funerals or anniversary parties - without advance permission from the local police department.


"All over the world, people enjoy the right to hold informal meetings as well as rallies and marches," said an Ashgabat resident. "Now it seems the authorities in this country are afraid of any gatherings - even for such innocent reasons as a graduation party, marriage or birthday."


A previous decree which, among other things, banned the playing of loud music after 11 pm - apparently after "numerous appeals" from the elderly - was introduced in 1999.


Local authorities in the capital and elsewhere interpreted this edict rather harshly, ordering restaurants and cafes to stop work at the prescribed hour and sending law enforcers around to ensure that no entertainment establishments were open beyond that time.


On the rare occasions when restaurant or café owners come to an arrangement with the local police will the latter allow customers to remain for half an hour after music has been switched off.


As a result, there are no nightclubs or late-night bars anymore, and the only signs of life on Ashgabat's streets after 11pm are lone pedestrians hurrying home.


Rejep Saparov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat


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