Burma Times: 12 March 2015
Myanmar arrested 127 protesters when baton-wielding police dispersed a student rally on Tuesday, as the second crackdown in recent days sparked Western condemnation and fears of a return to the repressive reflexes of the junta era.
LETPADAN: Myanmar arrested 127 protesters when baton-wielding police dispersed a student rally on Tuesday (Mar 10), as the second crackdown in recent days sparked Western condemnation and fears of a return to the repressive reflexes of the junta era.
Two large truckloads of protesters were taken away after riot police violently broke up the rally in the central town of Letpadan, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, ending over a week of stalemate between the authorities and students calling for education reforms.
Government spokesman Ye Htut defended the police after Tuesday’s violence, 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.
He said 127 people were arrested, including 65 students, while some 16 police and eight protesters were injured in the clashes.
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 scheduled for the end of this year that many see as the measure of its democratic progress.
It also comes just days after authorities used violence to end a supporting rally in the commercial hub of Yangon, prompting condemnation from rights campaigners.
Criticising the use of “excessive force” in Letpadan, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said the “disguise has come off and we are back to the bad old Burma of yesteryear,” referring to the country by its previous name.
In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We condemn the use of force taken against peaceful protesters. We are deeply concerned by reports of violence by police and other individuals against protesters. We are deeply concerned by the reports of arrests.”
The United States embassy in Yangon also took to Twitter urging “patience, compromise and restraint” on Myanmar’s path to democracy.
The European Union, which has run several training programmes with the Myanmar police, issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about the use of force and called for a swift investigation.
And in an email to AFP a spokeswoman said the clashes showed the need for further government reforms but insisted that it was right to launch the training programme for riot police.
The EU “remains committed to supporting positive change in Myanmar in general – and the important process of reforming the police in particular”, the spokeswoman said.
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2011, has ushered in a number of major reforms that have 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 in the dusty central town.
Tempers frayed early 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 crackdown Friday on an unauthorised rally in Yangon from accusations that police and men in civilian clothes beat unarmed protesters with batons.
Police swiftly descended on a fresh rally in central Yangon on Tuesday, but there were no reports of violence.
Students have demonstrated 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.