LETPADAN // Scores of protesters were arrested when baton-wielding police dispersed a student rally in Myanmar on Tuesday, as the second crackdown in days deepens fears that authorities are returning to the repressive reflexes of the junta era.
A witness 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.
“About 120 activists including students and supporters were detained. Some were injured and taken to hospitals for treatment,” said a police official. He said some 16 police officers were injured by rocks thrown by protesters.
Student activists in Yangon said those held included dozens of students and several monks.
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 comes days after authorities violently suppressed 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 said after Tuesday’s crackdown.
The “disguise has come off and we are back to the bad old Burma of yesteryear”, he said, referring to the country by its former name.
Government spokesman Ye Htut defended the police, blaming 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 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.
The students have for months been demonstrating for reform in Letpadan, but plans by a core group to march to Yangon were halted on March 2 when police surrounded some 150 activists near a monastery.
Tempers frayed early on Tuesday when demonstrators tried to push through the security blockade after authorities apparently went back on an agreement to allow them to continue their march.
“The police beat us,” one student protester said 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 said Friday’s rally in Yangon was unauthorised, but witnesses and campaigners accuse police and men in civilian clothes of beating unarmed protesters with batons.
Eight activists were briefly held in the altercation, which caused 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.
But the students pulled out of the discussions last week when police blockaded their main protest group in Letpadan.
* Agence France-Presse