Student activists in at least three cities in Burma were taken into custody by local authorities on Friday to prevent them from going ahead with planned events to mark the 50th anniversary of a major crackdown on student protests by the country’s armed forces.
Sources said that around 14 activists were rounded up in Rangoon, Mandalay and Lashio, Shan State, on Friday night, and that security forces are on the alert today against protests to mark the killing of dozens of students by Burma’s former dictator Ne Win on July 7, 1962.
Ant Bwe Kyaw, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, said that the detained activists in Rangoon, including De Nyein Linn, Sithu Maung, Phyo Phyo Aung and Ye Myat Hein, were released at around 11 am on Saturday. It was not clear, however, if the activists in Mandalay and Lashio have also been freed.
Sources said that around 20 police arrived at the Rangoon office of the 88 Generation Students group at about 10 pm on Friday looking for Kyaw Ko Ko and James, the organizers of a planned July 7 anniversary ceremony.
The police officials said they were “worried” about the planned event and that their superiors wanted to talk to its organizers, according to another member of the 88 Generation Students group.
Despite the restrictions, the 88 Generation Students held an event in Rangoon at 9 am today. About 200 activists, including leaders of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), attended.
The authorities checked the ID cards of attendees and photographed the event but did not try to stop it, said sources.
Leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Kyaw Ko Ko, were speakers at the event. The ceremony finished at about 11 am. A separate event also took place in Mandalay despite the arrests.
Kyaw Ko Ko told The Irrawaddy on Saturday that the total number of student activists who were arrested was around 20, including students in smaller centers such as Shwebo and Myagyan.
He added that the move was an obstacle to democratic reforms and could even signal the beginning of a return to the old system of military rule.
The 1962 crackdown came just months after Ne Win seized power in a bloody coup, inaugurating an era of authoritarian rule that lasted half a century. A day after troops fired on students who protested the military takeover, the army dynamited Rangoon University’s historic Student Union building. It has never been rebuilt, and Rangoon University has remained closed since 1988, when a massive student-led pro-democracy uprising forced Ne Win out of power, only to be crushed by a new military junta.
In previous years, activists held low-key ceremonies to commemorate the occasion. This year, however, in a test of nascent reforms under the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein, some activists have openly campaigned for Rangoon University to be reopened and the country’s outlawed student union to be legalized.