Anger, Dismay and Resolve as Freed Students Speak Out

By Yen Saning 13 March 2015

THAYAWADDY, Pegu Division — Students detained on Tuesday and released two days later in connection with a violent government crackdown on a protest in Letpadan, Pegu Division, described police conduct as “unfair,” “brutal” and “unforgivable” in remarks to reporters shortly after their release.

Sit Naing Aung, 18, a second-year law student at Mandalay’s Yadanabon University, was first among the 17 detainees to be released from Thayawaddy Prison on Thursday.

“I feel happy about my release, but I feel really bad about being detained for acting against the government’s misconduct,” he said. “I will keep working for a democratic education.”

Among those freed on Thursday, however, the future was not so clear for most, who said they were not sure what they would do in the aftermath of the incident, which saw 127 people detained.

Soe Lwin Kyaw, a student from the Thaton Agricultural Sciences Institute, said authorities had gone back on their word when they used batons to forcibly disperse the demonstrators.

“It’s unfair because we were violently cracked down on even though they promised they would not use force against us,” he said.

Ye Moh Moh Aung, 18, recalled how her male peers were disproportionately the victims of police brutality.

“The girls were not beaten much. But they were abusive. Girls were being prodded by batons. It was more the boys who were being beaten and wounded and a lot were sent to hospitals.”

“While they claim they are the people’s police … we don’t accept what they have done. Those who have authority could have stopped the police while they were beating us,” Ye Moh Moh Aung, a third-year student studying industrial chemistry at the University of East Yangon, told reporters.

When asked what she would like to say to responsible officials, she replied: “We are not asking them to give us power; we are asking to amend the education law. So please, amend the law. I’d like to say to police forces, don’t perpetrate violence against the public.”

The students are pushing for changes to a controversial National Education Law, and had been engaged in a tense weeklong standoff with authorities in Letpadan over the right to proceed to Rangoon with their protest. Parliament has said it will amend the law, but the students vowed to march on the commercial capital with or without government permission on Tuesday, prompting the altercation.

San Lin Htaik, a second-year mechanical engineering student from Hinthada Government Technical College, defended the students’ behavior as lawful, a claim that the government disputes.

“We were turning ourselves in peacefully at the monastery but as you know, they beat us with a grudge,” he said, adding that he had taken a police officer’s boot to the back of the neck.

“Looking from their side, it’s our fault. Looking from our side, it’s their fault. But I think they are more to blame,” he said.

Asked about claims that students had thrown sand at the police, San Lin Htaik said even if some had, the authorities’ response was unequivocally disproportionate. He said the students released on Thursday had been forced to agree not to participate in any more protests that violate Article 18 of Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law, which puts limits on free expression and assembly.

The father of Thitsar Aye Myat Moe traveled to Tharyarwaddy on Wednesday from Rangoon’s South Dagon Township to retrieve his imprisoned daughter. He asked The Irrawaddy’s photographer to take a photo as he prepared a jasmine garland to give to his daughter, a third-year English major at Dagon University, upon their reunion.

Some students said their possession went missing during the chaos.

“I had a bag, a phone, 50,000 kyats [US$50] and an identity card,” said 22-year-old Pyae Sone, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student from Meikhtila Government Technical College. “I just got my phone back. And I want to get my clothes bag back because throughout our trip, the public gave us clothes in support of us. I really cherish [those clothes] and I must get them back.”

Ei Phyu Phyu Htun, a 19-year-old geography major at Thanlyin East University, said she had lost jewelry and was trying to track it down.

“I knew that this kind of melee was going to happen, so I put my personal stuff including jewelry in my backpack,” she said. “When we had to run for our lives, someone grabbed it. … I will file a case at the Letpadan police station for my missing things.”

“We saw with our eyes how they beat our comrades brutally,” Ei Phyu Phyu Htun later told reporters through tears, adding that one of the protest leaders, Min Thwae Thit, was subject to multiple beatings.

Khine Zin Thet, a 20-year-old student from Mandalay Division, said: “This government just proved themselves to be a useless government. They beat students in front of our eyes. Very brutal. It is unforgivable.”

She added that the police had carried out the crackdown with resentment.

“They beat us while saying, ‘We missed three meals because of your guys,’” she said.

“They asked us to walk in a line to the detention car from the monastery. The police surrounded us and beat with batons,” the fourth-year English major said. “On our way to the car, they called the female students ‘prostitutes.’ I’ll never forget this.”

Her account of the beatings as apprehended students were led from the monastery to detention trucks was corroborated by Htet Lin, a second-year student from Hmawbi Government Technical College.

“Then later, they interrogated us. Mostly about our bios and how we became involved in the protest,” he added.

Khine Zin Thet said the future of the student protest movement would depend on whether enough support could be rallied for the cause.

An additional nine jailed students were released on Friday, according to Pegu Division Insp. Zaw Lin Oo. The government has said it will press multiple charges against an unspecified number of the remaining detainees.