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Myanmar Police Clash With Protesting Students


Myanmar riot police dispersed student protesters by force Tuesday, ending a standoff with activists who are demanding education reform.

Police wielding batons at Letpadan dispersed about 200 protesters, primarily students and sympathetic monks, who had been trying to march to Yangon. Some of the student leaders were detained, putting a halt to the nearly one-week standoff.

Witnesses say police chased down and kicked and beat the protesters before throwing them into wagons. More than 100 people were arrested.

"So many people are injured. And also some of the students are bleeding [on] their heads. They hit the students' heads. They used their sticks and they threw some of the bricks," he said.

A reporter on scene for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) said Buddhist monks were among those arrested.

Map showing students route from Mandalay to Letpadan, Myanmar
Map showing students route from Mandalay to Letpadan, Myanmar

The group set off last month from Mandalay. They were trying to reach Yangon, Myanmar's main city, where they intended to press the military-dominated government to scrap a new education reform law.

Since last week, the march has been stalled in the central city of Letpadan, about 130 kilometers north of Yangon, where marchers were surrounded by police and ordered to stop.

Student demonstrators

The clashes came hours after student leaders told VOA the government agreed to let activists continue their protest march to Yangon. It is not clear why the reported deal broke down.

European Press Photo Agency (EPA) staff photographer Nyein Chan Naing, who also was on the scene, said, “The student protesters tried to break through the police line and police stood against the student protesters. Suddenly someone threw a water bottle or something, then the violence started."

Police were also seen destroying the loudspeaker truck of the protest group and attacking an ambulance in which some protesters took refuge.

Chan Naing said journalists initially were unhindered but then also became targets of the police.

“They also tried to attack the journalists. They shouted at us 'journalists also get out! You cannot stay here.' They tried to use their rubber sticks to hit the journalists so we also had to run away from there," Chan Naing said.

The Irawaddy news outlet quoted one of its photographers describing a “complete breakdown of police discipline” with one group of security personnel attempting to restrain another that was indiscriminately attacking protesters.

Witnesses said authorities also went into nearby houses looking for those who had fled.

University students in Myanmar, also known as Burma, have been conducting on-and-off protests for months against an education bill adopted last year. They said it stifles academic freedom. The students also want the government to spend more money on education and allow them to have unions for students and faculty.

'Entirely predictable'

Mark Farmaner with the Britain-based Burma Campaign UK told VOA that Tuesday's events were "entirely predictable."

"We're seeing students protesters, demonstrations being banned. They're being attacked by the police and pro-regime thugs. We're seeing huge numbers of arrests taking place," Farmaner said. "It's all the kind of thing we saw before in 2007, when there was the crackdown in protesters then that we saw a decade before. It's the same old regime behavior that we've come to know happens so often in Burma."

The government had for days threatened to arrest the students if they continued their march, which authorities have said is "harming the peace and stability of the country."

Protests are tightly restricted in Myanmar, which is recovering from decades of a harsh military dictatorship. Democratic freedoms have improved slightly since 2011, when the country's military leaders handed power to a nominally civilian government.

But activists such as Farmaner say the pace of reform has slowed, and that many rights have even been reversed after Western governments loosened sanctions on Myanmar.

Previous history

There are growing fears that authorities in Myanmar could choose to return to tougher actions against not only student demonstrators but also factory workers who have been on strike, seeking higher wages.

Military leaders in 1988 brutally suppressed protests. Although a reformist government took over in 2011, ending nearly a half-century of military rule, the army still plays a powerful role in the government.

The police action on the students comes a day after a United Nations investigator published a report warning that Myanmar is sliding back toward conflict because the government has not kept promises to protect human rights.

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar wrote "fear, distrust and hostility" are spreading in Arakan state, home of the displaced mainly Muslim Rohingya.

Her report also chastizes Myanmar's security forces for continuing to recruit children and for using live ammunition against those who protested a proposed copper mine.

William Gallo contributed to this report from Washington.