Burmese authorities released around two dozen detained student activists on Saturday after taking them into custody ahead of the anniversary of a sensitive military crackdown, provoking fears that the country’s government had backtracked on its reformist agenda.
The activists, 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, were detained Friday in various locations around the country, including the cities of Rangoon, Mandalay, Lashio, and Shwebo.
Reuters news agency cited ABFSU secretary Phyo Phyo Aung, who was among those held, as saying that the group of detainees was released on Saturday.
She said that she and three other activists from the group were questioned at a government building in Rangoon because their group was deemed illegal.
The ABFSU was banned more than two decades ago but has continued to operate underground. The group was warned by the government last month to register as a political group or risk imprisonment of its members, but declined, saying that it did not qualify as a political party and did not need to register.
"Police officials told us that they just wanted to question us in connection with our plans to commemorate the anniversary," she told Reuters, referring to services honoring those who perished in the July 7, 1962 military bombing of Rangoon University’s student union, which ended student protests against the junta.
The ABFSU conducted ceremonies throughout the country on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing incident. Authorities had warned the group against holding any memorials that would “dig up the past.”
A delegation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) currently visiting Burma called the detentions an “act of oppression” and said “the old ways are still in effect” despite recent political reforms.
The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) also called on the government to release the students. AIPMC is in Burma on a fact-finding visit to assess the current reform process.
Banned student union
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.
In addition to detaining the nearly two dozen ABFSU activists, 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.
The ABFSU has long been an advocate for democracy in Burma and a critic of rights abuses committed by the former military government known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) accused of blatant human rights abuses. In 1988, during mass demonstrations in the streets of the then-capital Rangoon calling for democratic change, the ABFSU helped to coordinate democracy actions under the leadership of Min Ko Naing, which led to the ’88 Uprising.
The revolt was brutally suppressed by the then military junta and led to the formation of the 88 Generation Students pro-democracy group.
Reported by Joshua Lipes with additional reporting by newswires.