Myanmar riot police break up student protest over education law

The crackdown on students marching to Yangon, the former capital, underscores Myanmar's limited tolerance of free expression.

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
Student protesters struggle with riot police to remove a barricade installed by police during a protest ahead of a crackdown in Letpadan, 90 miles north of the country's main city Yangon, Myanmar Tuesday, March 10, 2015. Hundreds of riot police charged at students protesting Myanmar's new education law on Tuesday, pummeling them with batons and then dragging them into trucks, bringing a quick, harsh end to a weeklong standoff.

A weeklong standoff between students and security forces in Myanmar turned violent Tuesday when baton-wielding riot police broke up a demonstration over a controversial education law.

Witnesses told the news media that many of the protesters were injured when police charged them, kicking and beating them as they dragged them into trucks, though it was not clear how badly they were injured in the clashes. 

The students had been marching towards Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and former capital. Hundreds set out on foot from the central city of Mandalay more than a month ago in a symbolic protest against a new education law they say curbs academic freedom by centralizing state control over higher education.

The crackdown comes amid Myanmar’s unsteady transition from military rule to democracy and signals that the country’s reforms are far from complete. As The Associated Press reports:

Myanmar only recently began moving from a half-century of brutal military rule toward democracy. But the nominally civilian government installed four years ago has been grappling with the consequences of newfound freedoms of expression. It has been especially sensitive about public protests, arresting hundreds of people since taking office for peacefully expressing their views.

In November, about a hundred students held the first protests against the new education law. Monks and other activists have since joined, bringing their number to about 200 in the last nine days as they marched towards Yangon.

The protestors made it as far as Letpadan, a town about 90 miles north of Yangon, where they started a sit-in on a road near a monastery. More than 400 police blockaded them behind vehicles and barbed-wire barriers, according to Reuters.

The AP reports that authorities had warned "action would be taken" if they tried to go ahead. But there had also been reports of negotiations between the two sides, the BBC reports. A breakthrough agreement was announced early Tuesday, granting the students permission to continue on their march.

The deal fell apart when authorities refused to allow students to carry flags, according to Myanmar's Irrawaddy newspaper. Soon after the protestors tried to push their way through the barriers. The riot police turned on them, chasing after them with batons and sticks.

A reporter for the Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, said the police indiscriminately attacked students and journalists. A witness told Reuters that he saw police chase demonstrators into a Buddhist monastery where they had taken refuge.

Several protesters were reportedly arrested Tuesday, including two student leaders. Five students were reportedly detained in Letpadan on Friday but have since been released, and eight were detained and later freed in Yangon.

Students argue that the education law should be amended so that students have the right to form unions and to be taught in minority languages. They also want to decentralize the school system by putting decision-making power into the hands of universities rather than Myanmar's education ministry.

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