Burmese officials, facing criticism from human rights groups, released up to 20 student leaders after briefly holding them ahead of the anniversary of a deadly 1962 military attack on students in Rangoon. Burma's political activists said the arrests are “a misunderstanding” and called on the military-backed civilian government to show greater confidence in student leaders.
The student leaders, freed late Saturday, had been arrested a day earlier and held at undisclosed locations just as they were preparing to mark the 50th anniversary of an army attack on Rangoon University.
Police detained the student leaders in Rangoon, Mandalay, Lashio and Shwebo, in the north of Burma. Rights groups said police may have feared the activists would use the ceremony to create political instability.
Among those detained was Secretary of the All Burma Students Union, 23-year-old Phyo Phyo Aung, who had been released as a political prisoner last year.
Commemorations marked the brutal 1962 attack on Rangoon University soon after the rise to power of former authoritarian General Ne Win. He led Burma for the next 49 years. Dozens of students died during the 1962 army attack on the student union building where injured students had taken refuge.
Uncertainty over the whereabouts of the detainees had renewed raised fears among the pro-democracy community in Burma, also called Myanmar.
A delegation from ASEAN's Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, (AIPMC) currently visiting Burma, called the arrests an “act of oppression” which left the impression that “the old ways are still in effect” despite recent changes.
Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), said authorities were nervous every year over celebrations to commemorate the 1962 tragedy. Bo Kyi called for authorities to have “more trust” in the new generation of political activists.
“The authorities have a misunderstanding and they do not trust the new generation that [is] the main concern. Authorities or the Burmese government should trust the new generation of activists in Burma. They are trying to cooperate with the government, even though they are doing some kind of important memorial service, they do not have any intention to do any demonstration,” Bo Kyi said.
On Saturday up to 300 people marked the anniversary despite the arrests and the presence of plainclothes police.
Debbie Stothard, spokesperson for rights group, the Alternative ASEAN Network said the arrests raised doubts about Burma’s pace of reforms, especially given recent steps by several countries to ease economic sanctions.
“If the country was really moving towards reform people shouldn’t be rounded up on the eve of any anniversary of importance," she said. "We hope that this serves as a wake-up call to part of the international community that has been euphoric and over optimistic about the pace of reform and the commitment to reform in Burma. There’s no point dismantling sanctions when the authorities are clearly not in a hurry to move forward to greater freedom.”
The detentions came just days after authorities freed 20 political prisoners and follows the release of hundreds of political prisoners since President Thein Sein came to power last year. Rights group Amnesty International says up to 400 political prisoners remain in detention.
Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in recent speeches had also cautioned the international community and investors over the pace of Burma’s reforms.
The arrests came on the back of the recent detention of 10 aid workers, including United Nations staff in the western Rakhine region who were assisting the Muslim and Buddhist communities after sectarian violence led to scores dead in clashes and the arson of local communities’ homes and businesses.