Police in Myanmar on Tuesday beat students, monks and journalists, and detained more than 100 people while dispersing demonstrators who had protested for more than a week against a controversial education law they say will limit academic freedom in the country.
Around 200 people have been demonstrating against Myanmar’s National Education Law, which they say will break up student unions and allow the government to take decisions on issues such as curriculum out of the hands of universities, in a protest march to the commercial capital Yangon.
Students left the central city of Mandalay more than a month ago, but authorities set up a blockade in Bago region’s Letpadan to prevent them from reaching Yangon, 140 kilometers (90 miles) to the south, and where protests in 1988 touched off a pro-democracy movement in then junta-ruled Myanmar.
On Tuesday, police moved to clear the protest site in the second crackdown in days, loosing themselves on demonstrators and bystanders alike with truncheons and riot shields, according to Moe Kyaw, a photojournalist from The Voice daily journal.
“Police beat everyone they saw wearing civilian clothing—even those who were sitting and standing beside the road watching the crackdown,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“Some higher level officers tried to stop the policemen, but they wouldn’t listen to their superiors and continued beating people.”
Activists said tensions boiled over after authorities appeared to renege on an earlier agreement to allow them to continue their march.
Reuters news agency quoted witnesses as saying both police and protesters used slingshots against each other, but that authorities quickly drove demonstrators and their supporters away, sending some scurrying for safe haven in a nearby monastery.
Kyaw Thu, chairman of the Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS), said his group tried to take injured protesters for medical treatment but were stymied by police.
“We took injured protesters into our ambulances, but police got into the vehicles and beat the people again,” Kyaw Thu said.
“Our vehicles couldn’t travel to the hospital because we were being held by the police,” he said, adding that authorities also deliberately damaged their cars and ambulances.
Zar Zar Tun, a teacher who was injured in the clash, confirmed that police continued to beat injured protesters as they were being escorted to an area hospital.
“We ran because the police beat us and people from the FFSS told us to get in their cars, but the police also got into the cars, demanding that we get out and beating us.”
“People from the FFSS urged them to let us go to the hospital and to stop beating us because we were injured.”
Sources told RFA that among those detained in the clash were protest leaders Phyo Phyo Aung and Min Tway Thit.
Bago region deputy police chief Col. Win Sein defended his officers’ actions and confirmed that more than 100 people had been arrested in the melee.
“The students started to break through the barricade around 11:30 a.m., with some throwing water bottles at us and trying to cross over to our side—that’s why we cracked down on them according to the [law],” he said.
“We arrested more than 100 people, including students and local residents. We will investigate them and release those who are innocent, sending the rest to Thayarwaddy Jail. We will take action against those who are guilty according to the law.”
The official Global New Light of Myanmar reported that police had arrested a total of 127 “protesters” after the clashes after they “tried to liberate [themselves] from the surrounding of police, turning the sit-in protest to [one of] violence between the both sides.”
The report said 16 police were wounded in the incident and cited the Ministry of Home Affairs as saying those arrested consisted of 52 male students, 13 female students, 55 male “civilians” and seven female “civilians.” It did not provide details on the number of protesters injured in the clash.
Politicians and democracy activists slammed the crackdown Tuesday, calling it a step backward for democratic reforms implemented by President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government since taking power from the former junta in 2011, and a worrying sign ahead of general elections slated for later this year.
“I didn’t think government would allow this kind of brutal crackdown, especially as we move toward a democracy with a focus on good governance,” Aye Thar Aung, a leader of the ethnic Rakhine community in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, told RFA.
“We feel sad and concerned that the government’s response to a student protest may prove to be a barrier for the country’s future.”
Han Shwe, chair of the opposition National Unity Party, called the police action “a minus sign” for Myanmar.
“This is the time for the people to enjoy stability and calm in order to prepare for the 2015 general election,” he said.
Veteran politician Thakhin Can Tun said he was unsurprised by the crackdown, stressing that “the current government is also a military one” and urging the authorities to solve disputes through negotiations rather than using brute force.
Thura Tin Oo, a senior official in Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and the former commander in chief of the country’s defense services, said police had no business using violence against young students and called for the immediate release of those detained.
Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation democracy movement, condemned the use of crackdowns by authorities and questioned why police had continued to attack people wounded in the clash as they were taken for medical attention.
“The government should be guaranteeing the rights and security of the people,” he said, calling for the release of those detained.
The crackdown also drew condemnation from the international community Tuesday, with the U.S. expressing concern over the incident and urging Myanmar’s government to respect the right to assembly in the country.
“We condemn the use of force taken against peaceful protesters, we are deeply concerned by reports of violence by police and other individuals against protesters. We are deeply concerned by the reports of arrests,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
The Delegation of the European Union, which has been training Myanmar’s police force in crowd management, also slammed the crackdown and called for a formal investigation.
Tuesday’s clash came as Thein Sein signed an order to form a commission of inquiry into an incident in which police and plainclothes thugs beat protesters who had gathered near Yangon City Hall on March 5 to voice their support for the group in Letpadan, drawing condemnation by rights groups.
“The commission is assigned to investigate whether security forces acted properly in dispersing the protesters, and whether the authorities responsible acted in line with legal procedures, while also seeking measures to prevent such cases in the future,” The Global New Light of Myanmar reported, adding that the commission would directly submit its findings to the president by March 31.
Also on Tuesday, around 100 demonstrators were met in the street in Yangon by police who grabbed one of them and beat him, though authorities released the man and apologized when the crowd dispersed.
Reported by Zarni Tun, Wai Mar Tun, Khin Khin Ei, Thin Thiri and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.