Violent clashes ahead of education bill hearing

Student protests over Myanmar’s higher education bill have met with a violent police crackdown in the town of Letpadan last week. Some 127 students were arrested and many injured when they were violently beaten by police.

The police “destroyed whatever they could see in front of them. They struck very violently with batons and attacked people on the street including media, monks, medical workers and local residents”, Zay Yar Lwin, a member of the students' Democracy Education Initiative Committee, told University World News.

The crackdown on 10 March is the second time students protesting against the National Education Bill have been violently dispersed. Police and a group of people wearing red armbands, which said ‘duty’, attacked around 200 students on 5 March at Sule Pagoda in Yangon.

Police arrested some students and activists in Yangon but released them the next day.

However, near a Buddhist monastery at Letpadan, some 140 kilometres from Yangon, 127 protestors including some student leaders were arrested. A dozen were released on 12 March and up to 30 could be freed by the weekend, local authorities said. Others may be charged with ‘unlawful assembly’.

Parliamentary talks

Among the arrested were students expected at a parliamentary discussion on the disputed education bill on 16 March.

Students, civil society and academics have been demanding amendments to the bill, passed last September, which they say continues a highly centralised higher education system. They are calling for greater autonomy for universities, academic freedom and the right for students and teachers to form unions.

Just nine students will now attend the parliamentary talks on the bill. Many others will be unable to attend “because some of them are in prison and some will wait for the students’ leaders to be released from prison”, Zin Maung Htet, a member of Dawei University Students Union from Tanintharyi region told University World News.

A previous round of discussions on the bill held in parliament on 5 March between students and parliamentarians was unfruitful.

At the beginning of the month student groups had decided to converge on the former capital Yangon saying the government had reneged on a promise to amend the controversial National Education Law under an agreement reached with students and civil society in February.

Many protesting students returned home after the February agreement. But students began marching again in early March saying the government had reneged on the agreement and had presented an amended bill to parliament that did not include student demands.

Mandalay group

A group of around 80 students had set out from Mandalay in early March and stopped in Letpadan for two weeks, where what was described as a ‘large security force’ blocked them from advancing to Yangon. An estimated 200 police officers manned barricades blocking the road, according to the Paris based International Federation for Human Rights, or FIDH, in a confirmed account of the situation.

“The authorities refused to permit the student protesters to leave as a group, wave banners or chant slogans. When students attempted to break through police barricades, the police responded with force. Police officers attacked students, supporters, and journalists with batons, injuring an estimated 70 people, FIDH said in a statement released on 12 March.

Nyo Nyo Thin, a member of the Yangon Region Parliament, Bahan Township, told University World News that the government could have let the students continue if it wanted because the students were only asking to march 200-300 yards and then go peacefully to Yangon by bus.

Nyo Nyo Thin was among a group of civil society representatives, students and others that met with U Nyan Win, the Minister of Pegu division, where Letpadan is situated, and negotiated conditions for students to continue their journey to Yangon.

“We got an agreement that we could go to Yangon peacefully. However the regional government did not allow the students to bring flags or headbands, and the students did not accept that,” she said.

Government statement

In a statement to the media, the Minister of Information U Ye Htut said “the forced dispersal of student protesters by police was a sorrowful incident but the government tried as hard as it could to achieve a peaceful settlement in line with its policy”.

“The students’ decision to march to Yangon instead of choosing democratic or parliamentary process was the cause of the conflict,” Ye Htut said.

The Letpadan crackdown has been condemned by the United States, the European Union and human rights groups.

Even though the Myanmar government and officers said the police action was legal, the world has seen the evidence of what’s really happening, U Aung Naing Oo, representative of Mon State Parliament, told University World News.

“Both sides made some errors. However, government shouldn’t crack down on students. Students also should behave in accordance with the law,” he said.

According to state-run newspapers the government has said it will set up an investigating commission to examine whether police and authorities acted in accordance with the law.

The students' marches have now stopped according to Zay Yar Lwin because of the high school exam period. Police security around Mandalay University and other institutions has also been tightened.