Myanmar police arrest scores in violent rally crackdown

2015-03-10 19:29
(Phyo Hein Kyaw, AFP)

(Phyo Hein Kyaw, AFP)

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Letpadan - Scores of Myanmar protesters were arrested when baton-wielding police dispersed a student rally on Tuesday, as the second crackdown in days deepens fears that authorities are returning to the repressive reflexes of the junta era.

An AFP reporter saw two large truckloads of protesters being taken away after riot police used violence to break up the rally in the central town of Letpadan, ending over a week of stalemate between the authorities and students calling for education reforms.

Student activists in Yangon said around one hundred people had been held, including dozens of students and several monks, while a senior police source confirmed the detentions.

"About 120 activists including students and supporters were detained. Some were injured and taken to hospitals for treatment," the police official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that some 16 police officers were injured by rocks thrown by protesters.

The crackdown has intensified concerns that authorities are resorting to the repressive tactics of the previous authoritarian regime, as the nation stumbles towards a general election slated for the end this year.

It also comes just days after authorities used violence to end a supporting rally in the main city of Yangon, prompting outcry from rights campaigners.

"These are peaceful protesters, this is free expression and they are being attacked by police in clear demonstration of excessive use of force," Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told AFP after Tuesday's crackdown.

The "disguise has come off and we are back to the bad old Burma of yesteryear", he added, referring to the country by its former name.

Government spokesperson Ye Htut defended the police, saying they were forced to react to provocation by the protesters.

"After many warnings that were not followed, police had to use force to disperse the protest because [protesters] attacked them and tried to destroy barricades," he said in a post on his Facebook page.

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2011, has ushered in a number of major reforms that has lured foreign investment back into the isolated nation. But observers fear democratic reforms are stalling.

Students beaten

The students have for months been demonstrating for reform in Letpadan, but plans by a core group to march to Yangon were halted on 2 March when police surrounded some 150 activists near a monastery in the dusty central town.

Tempers frayed early on Tuesday when demonstrators tried to push through the security blockade after authorities apparently reneged on an agreement to allow them to continue their march.

"The police beat us," one student protester, requesting anonymity, told AFP by telephone as he took shelter with some 70 other demonstrators in a monastery.

Student campaigners have been at the forefront of several of Myanmar's major uprisings, including a huge 1988 demonstration that prompted a bloody military assault under the former junta.

The government has also defended its Friday crackdown on an unauthorised rally the commercial hub of Yangon, despite accusations that police and men in civilian clothes beat unarmed protesters with batons - causing outrage in a country where student activism is a potent political force.

Police swiftly descended on a fresh rally in central Yangon on Tuesday, but there were no reports of violence.

Students have rallied sporadically since November 2014 against a new education law, demanding changes to the legislation to decentralise the school system, teach in ethnic languages and allow the formation of student unions.

The government, which has held several rounds of talks with student representatives, has agreed to rethink the controversial law.

A special parliamentary committee is currently debating the proposed changes, with input from experts.

But the students themselves pulled out of the discussions last week in response to the police blockade of their main protest group in Letpadan.

Read more on:    myanmar

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