‘This Was Too Brutal’

By Yen Saning 10 March 2015

A core group of about 200 student demonstrators and their supporters were violently dispersed by police in Letpadan, Pegu Division, on Tuesday morning. Several were injured, many were arrested, and some fled into nearby homes and jungles to escape the vicious scene.

As the dust began to settle, The Irrawaddy spoke with Thein Lwin of the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) about what sparked the brutal crackdown and what transpired in Letpadan.

Question: What is the current situation now in Letpadan?

Answer: [Pegu Division] Security Affairs Minister [Col. Thet Tun] wanted the students to [exit the protest site] five people at a time. He was not giving them permission to pass. What the security affairs minister said during our morning discussion was that he would let them go as though ‘releasing them from prison.’ He said everyone should grab their own bag and leave in groups of five. Go to Mandalay or Yangon [Rangoon], he said. He was not giving permission to pass [police barriers] and go to Yangon. They were saying that they would release the students and let them go home from there.

Q: Is this the reason why the students didn’t accept the agreement?

A: Students could not accept this. If they wanted to go home, they would have already left. They were protesting with a goal. They agreed to turn themselves in. They could not leave in this way. [Students asked police to] please arrest them in groups of four. When they turned themselves in without offense, about four or five police beat one student. They did it brutally. Students were just turning themselves in peacefully. There was no violence from students.

Q: What was the final say or warning from the minister during your last meeting?

A: The Security Affairs Minister said he could release them in that way. He could not allow them to protest. He would allow them to go in groups of five, in only one car at a time. It couldn’t be a series of cars.

Q: What did they say they would do if students didn’t leave how they were instructed to?

A: They told [the students] by loudspeaker at 11:30 to disperse. If not, action would be taken.

Q: Were any members of the NNER arrested?

A: Two of our members, who were acting as messengers between us and the students, were arrested. Ko Ye Win—the one with the crutches—and Phone Pyae Kyaw. Now we are on our way to Yangon.

Q: Do you know how many students were arrested?

A: Almost all of the students who were there were arrested. All of them, even those who were in the monastery. I didn’t witness it, but we got a call, and people in the monastery turned themselves in one by one. Monks were also arrested. They arrested everyone and cleared the site.

Q: Could you offer your personal comment on today’s events?

A: The students were asking to proceed peacefully. They have already presented their plan to disperse peacefully, but they weren’t allowed and they were violently cracked down on. I think [the students] were mistreated. It’s a violation of human rights. Everyone has the right to protest and express themselves, so people’s rights have been blocked, and they were beaten and arrested. They [the police] beat them first and then arrested them. This was too brutal.

Q: What about the four-party agreement [reached by students, the government, lawmakers and educators]?

A: Part of our agreement was that no action would be taken against protesters and those who support amending the National Education Law. This was a breach of the agreement.