A Myanmar court on Wednesday freed 11 detainees arrested during the violent police crackdown on students and others who protested against the National Education law earlier this month, but pressed charges against 69 students as members of parliament debated the reform of the legislation.
Authorities released 10 local residents and one student at a court hearing but charged 69 others under five sections of the country’s penal code, two weeks after riot police violently broke up their rally for education reform in the central Myanmar town of Letpadan, some of the detained students and their supporters said.
“We were charged under five articles” of Myanmar’s penal code, said Kyaw Thu Thu, a detained local resident. “We were released today on bail, but we still have been charged under sections 143, 145 and 147.”
Robert San Aung, an attorney representing some of the students, noted that the 69 who are being held in Tharrawaddy prison near Letpadan also were charged under penal code sections 332 and 505(b).
Section 143 of the penal code pertains to unlawful assembly, section 145 to joining or continuing in unlawful assembly, section 147 to rioting and section 332 to voluntarily causing harm to deter public servants. Section 505 (b) prohibits publishing or circulating information that may cause public fear or alarm and which may incite people to commit offences against the state or public tranquility.
The charges carry jail terms of nearly 10 years.
The 69 were part of a group of 127 students, monks and local residents arrested during the crackdown two weeks ago as they protested against what they say is an undemocratic education law that sharply curtails academic freedom. Their actions were part of a nationwide march of students from Mandalay in the north to the commercial capital Yangon.
The court also announced that student leaders Kyaw Ko Ko, Ye Yint Kyaw, Myat Thu and Nanda Sitt Aung were wanted for arrest, people who attended the court session said.
The next hearing for student leaders Aung Hmine San, Min Thway Thit and Phyo Phyo Aung has been scheduled for April 7, they said.
Only one family member of each student and reporter was allowed to attend the hearing, and 26 attorneys, including ones from the Myanmar Lawyer Network, have applied to provide legal counsel for charged students, they said.
Lily Htway, mother of detained student leader Thiha Win Tin, said her son has lost weight while he has been in the interrogation center since March 10, the day on which riot police used repressive tactics to break up and arrest demonstrators.
“They [the students] are not bad people,” she said. “They just tried to change a stupid system to make it better.”
Military MPs join debate
As the court hearing was under way, six lawmakers, including two military MPs joined the ongoing debate on reform of the National Education Law in the upper house of parliament, tackling the education budget and student and teacher unions.
“I would like to suggest that it should be written in the law that a proper amount of the education budget will be raised within five years,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military lawmaker.
“The education budget should be use more than before, as human resources are very important for the nation’s development.”
Phone Myint Aung, a lawmaker from the New National Democracy Party, said student and teacher unions should have their own constitutions and rules.
“The National Education Law should be designed after writing these unions’ constitutions, rules and laws,” he said.” I would like to suggest abolishing the whole education law because we need to wait for other laws to be finalized first.”
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.
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win, Pyone Moh Moh Zin, Myo Thant Khine and Kyaw Thu of RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.