More than 70 student activists went on trial on Tuesday in a court in central Myanmar to face unlawful assembly and rioting charges stemming from a protest calling for education reform, with their lawyers criticizing the lack of preparedness of the first witness, the local police chief.
Most of the protestors were among the 127 arrested two months ago during a violent police crackdown on student-led peaceful protests in the central town of Letpadan in the Tharrawaddy district of the country’s Bago division, where they had stopped en route on a cross-country march to the commercial capital Yangon.
The court heard from the prosecution's first witness, Letpadan police chief Phone Myint, who defended his force’s crowd control tactics, which he said were taught to officers by European Union police trainers.
Robert San Aung, an attorney representing the detained students, said he found it “strange” that Phone Myint said his force used tactics that it had learned from European Union police trainers, and that he read his testimony from a prepared script.
“If I have to make a comment on police officer Phone Myint’s testimony, he doesn’t know the documents and case well and just gave his testimony by reading from a book,” Robert San Aung, an attorney representing the detained students, told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “He then closed that book because we lawyers objected because he gave his testimony by reading from a book, which is not according to law.”
Phyo Phyo Aung, one of the detained students and the secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), said Phone Myint’s comments in court indicated that he did not know the facts of the case well enough.
“He gave the wrong dates, names and wrong facts about our speeches,” he said.
Another detained student, Min Thway Thit, said Phone Myint “read from the state-owned newspaper as [part of his testimony].”
“Even ordinary people don’t trust state-owned newspapers,” he said. “We don’t accept it.”
The offenses the students are charged with carry jail sentences of nearly 10 years.
Before Phone Myint finished reading his statement, the court adjourned and is scheduled to resume on May 26, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
Released on bail
Thirteen university students and one underage student named Aung Min Khant, a high school student who lives in Schwebo, applied for bail, but only the 16-year-old was released on Tuesday by the Tharrawaddy township court.
Aung Min Khaing, a high school student from Shwebo, was detained for two months in Tharrawaddy prison along with other students for his alleged involvement in the protest.
“According to the law on children, a child cannot be detained with adults,” Thein Than Oo, an attorney for the students, told RFA. “Even if he or she commits a crime that commands a death sentence, judges can’t sentence a child to more than seven years. He can’t have his trial at a court for adults.”
Aung Min Khant, who said he was beaten by police during the crackdown, told RFA that another 16-year-old student and an 18-year-old student remain in jail.
The 16-year-old student must now be tried in a juvenile court, he added.
Students have demanded a more democratic education law that includes a decentralized education system, changes to university entrance exam requirements, modernization of the national education curriculum, the right to form student unions, and instruction in the country’s ethnic minority languages.
Parliament started debating amendments to the national education law during its current session which began Monday.
The lower house agreed that student and teacher representatives be included in debates when education policies and laws were discussed, but the upper house opposed the measure, arguing that only representatives from student and teacher unions could participate.
“A law should be passed that is in the interest of the country and its citizens,” said upper house lawmaker Min Oo of the opposition National League for Democracy Party.
Members of parliament are also debating the national education budget, which some believe must be increased to help boost the nation’s development.
In January, President Thein Sein’s cabinet asked lawmakers to approve a drastic increase in government spending in 2015-2016, with a 21.6 percent increase in the Education Ministry’s budget, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Phone Myint Aung, an upper house lawmaker from the New National Democracy Party, said lawmakers have raised the national education budget every year, but they could not agree on the details that would dictate how much it would be increased annually.
“We shouldn’t put that burden on the next parliament or next government,” he said. “I would like to see the law that says we have to reserve 20 percent of the budget for education be abolished.”
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win, Waiyan Moe Myint, Khet Mar, Win Ko Ko Lat and Win Naung Toe of RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.