Updated at 8:30 a.m. EST on 2012-07-10
Burmese authorities on Friday detained more than two dozen members of a banned political organization and raided the headquarters of a student activist group in Rangoon ahead of the anniversary of a major protest against the country’s former military regime, fellow activists said.
The detentions and raid mark a significant step backward for democratic reforms implemented by the country’s nominally civilian government since it took power in March of last year.
In several locations around the country, Special Branch police detained members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), an umbrella organization for all student unions in Burma and a voice for academic freedom and student rights, which was banned more than two decades ago but has continued to operate underground.
The ABFSU was warned by the government last month to register as a political group or risk imprisonment of its members. But the group declined, saying that it did not qualify as a political party and did not need to register.
Authorities also raided the Rangoon headquarters of the 88 Generation Students Group, a movement formed by activists who participated in student-led protests against Burma’s former military regime in 1988.
ABSFU chariman Kyaw Ko Ko spoke to RFA’s Burmese service about an hour before authorities began looking for him at the 88 Generation Students' office in Rangoon, saying that he had recently received information about the detention of his fellow activists in various cities around Burma.
"First, I heard about the detention of Soe Kyi Thar, ABFSU chair of Lashio [Shan state], together with a female student. We were waiting to see if they would be released. By 9:30 p.m. they were not released, so we talked with [ABFSU secretary] Phyo Phyo Aung to give the news to the media,” Kyaw Ko Ko said.
“Then we received additional news that the Abbot of Myawaddy Mingyi monastery in Mandalay was being pressured about tomorrow’s religious ceremony,” he said, referring to a service honoring those who perished in the July 7, 1962 military bombing of Rangoon University’s student union, which ended student protests against the junta.
“So the Abbot is negotiating to shorten the ceremony.”
The organization that evolved into the ABFSU was founded by Burma’s revered General Aung San, the father of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In May, Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to help revive the banned national student rights organization, saying she accepts that the student union is legal and essential to promoting democracy in the country.
The ABFSU had planned to conduct ceremonies throughout the country tomorrow to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing incident. Authorities had warned the group against holding any memorials which would “dig up the past.”
Kyaw Ko Ko said that two ABFSU activists had been detained in Mandalay—Aung Hmyin Sant and Moe Htet. ABFSU activists from Monywa had also been detained, he said.
“Eventually, I couldn't contact Phyo Phyo Aung anymore and realized she had been taken by the police after contacting others,” he said.
“I also heard that [former ABFSU members] De Nyein Lin, Sithu Maung, and [ABFSU member] Ye Myat Hein had been detained.”
Yeyint Kyaw, an ABFSU activist from Mandalay who is currently in hiding, confirmed that authorities had stepped up controls on the Myawaddy monastery ahead of the planned ceremony to honor the anniversary of the 1962 crackdown.
"Myawaddy Mingyi monastery, the site for tomorrow's ceremony in Mandalay, was surrounded by two army trucks and one van," he said.
"There are around 20 students inside the monastery. Plainclothes police are closely watching the area and have sealed off the local roads."
Nay Win, father of Phyo Phyo Aung, confirmed his daughter’s detention.
“Two cars parked in front of our house at around 10 p.m. A lot of uniformed people came in and said they had some questions. The group leader said his name was Saw Thein from the Northern district of the SB [Special Branch],” Nay Win said.
“Two female officers were among them and said they would take Phyo Phyo for questioning. Her mother asked if they could question her at home, and they said they couldn't,” he said.
“They said they would take her for only one or two days, and guaranteed to release her after that.”
Both Nay Win and his daughter are former political prisoners who were arrested in the aftermath of the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster for helping to bury the estimated 138,000 killed by the storm, despite the then-ruling military regime’s efforts to block aid to affected regions.
Taken for questioning
Zaw Zaw Min, father of former ABFSU member De Nyein Lin, told RFA that his home had been visited by the Special Branch district chief and several local authorities at around 10:30 p.m. on Friday.
"They requested to take him and said they would release him after questioning. When we tried to take pictures of them, they wouldn't let us. I can't believe this kind of thing could happen during this transitional [political] period. I am very surprised,” Zaw Zaw Min said.
“Just today we met with the deputy labor minister and he said they would welcome negotiations, and that the president and members of parliament trust the 88 students to work together. And now this happens,” he said.
“I consider this the destruction of peace. The president said he would leave behind those who want to turn back and will move forward [with reforms], so this kind of thing shouldn't happen at all.”
Zaw Zaw Min said the officers would not say how long they intended to keep De Nyein Lin for questioning. Both father and son are also former political prisoners.
ABFSU said on its Facebook page that Special Branch police had detained “several students from Mandalay, Monywa, Myingyan, Shwebo, and Rangoon in connection with planned July 7 ceremonies.”
In a statement released Friday, the group said that other detained members include Ko Than Htike, Ko Min Khant, Ko Pyay Phyo Kyaw, Ko Wathan, Ma Htay Htay Win, and Ko Khin Oo.
Around two dozen Special Branch police officers and regular Burmese police also stormed the headquarters of the 88 Generation Students group on Friday evening, looking for leaders of the ABFSU, 88 Student leader Ko Ko Gyi told RFA.
"SB and police came to our office—about 20-25 of them. When I came to the office, I saw them in front of the building. They came to look for Kyaw Ko Ko,” he said.
“They didn't take anything from the office. They just said that they wanted to hold ‘a discussion with [ABFSU members] briefly.’ After about 40 minutes, they left.”
Ko Ko Gyi and fellow 88 Generation Student leader Min Ko Naing criticized the arrests and vowed to hold their own ceremonies on Saturday to remember the students killed on July 7, 1962.
“We will continue our work until only one of us is left,” Min Ko Naing said in a statement.
“The act of detention during this transitional period is a threat for the country’s civil society.”
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION – RFA has identified De Nyein Lin and Sithu Maung as former ABFSU members.