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Myanmar Defends Police Crackdown on Protesters

Police stand guard in front of a court, after the arrival of student protesters, in Letpadan March 11, 2015.
Police stand guard in front of a court, after the arrival of student protesters, in Letpadan March 11, 2015.

Myanmar's information minister is defending a police crackdown on student protesters, saying authorities were "legally obligated" to break up the protest and insisting the incident will have "no impact" on the country's democratic reform process.

The comments, published in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar, came after police violently broke up the protest Tuesday in the central town of Letpadan, where students were trying to continue their march to demand changes to an education reform bill.

"Despite requests for peaceful negotiations, student protesters tried to penetrate the police blockade and the police were legally obligated to disperse them," the paper quoted the Information Minister Ye Htut as telling a local television station.

While lamenting the crackdown as a "sorrowful incident," Ye Htut said the military-dominated government tried "as hard as it could" to achieve a peaceful settlement and had sought to "avoid undesirable incidents."

"The student protesters' decision to march to Yangon instead of choosing democratic or parliamentary processes was the cause of the conflict," the paper quoted the minister as saying.

At least 127 people were arrested and many protesters were injured when baton-wielding police turned on the students. In some cases, protesters were chased down, and then kicked and beaten as they were dragged away to police vehicles.

The crackdown prompted an outcry from Western governments and international rights groups, and raised fresh concerns that Myanmar was further slipping from the democratic reforms it has made in the last several years.

In his interview, Ye Htut denied this was the case, saying the handling of the protest "will have no impact on democratic reform." He also referenced recent incidents in which U.S. police dispersed protesters, including in the central city of Ferguson.

"Nobody spoke of U.S. democracy having backtracked," when these incidents occurred, the minister said.

The Global New Light of Myanmar on Thursday also said ten of the monks detained at the Letpadan protest have been allowed to return their monasteries, after agreeing to a set of government demands. "They agreed to stay away from party politics, social affairs, and student protests in the future, and to abide by the instructions" of the local government, according to the paper.

"However, action will be taken against those who committed criminal acts, instigate instability, and led the protests behind the scene," said the state-run daily. It did not elaborate on what charges the protesters may face.

The group, made up of hundreds of students, set off on a march last month from Mandalay, trying to reach Yangon, Myanmar's main city. But the march was stopped by police on March 2 in the city of Letpadan, about 130 kilometers north of Yangon.

The students and government officials had engaged in days of talks aimed at resolving the situation peacefully, with the government repeatedly warning that they viewed any continued marching as a threat to the stability of the country.

The students are opposed to the government's education reform law, which they say will centralize control of universities in Myanmar. They also want more government spending on education as well as the freedom to organize teachers and students.

Myanmar has been run by a semi-civilian government since 2011, after decades of military rule. But pro-democracy activists say they believe they are seeing a return to the old Burma, where military rulers banned free speech and violently cracked down on protests.

The National League for Democracy, the party headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, on Wednesday slammed the police action as illegal and called for the creation of an investigative commission.

The U.S. State Department condemned the use of force against the students and urged the government to "respect the right of protesters to assemble peacefully as a means of expressing their views."

Human Rights Watch called the crackdown "savage" and said it "marks an ugly return to the street violence of military rule."

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