LETPADAN, Pegu Division — Seventy students who have been detained since a brutal police crackdown last month appeared at Letpadan Township Court on Tuesday, where there were emotional scenes as friends and family saw their loved ones in handcuffs while they were being brought into the court building.
Lawyers involved in the case said Tuesday’s proceedings were related to a plan by authorities to transfer the case from Letpadan to a court in the more remote Tharawady District, where the detained have been kept in prison.
They said it was likely that the students would face a string of criminal charges that would be brought by authorities in the various townships that they passed through during their protest march in recent months.
“The [Tharawaddy] district attorney general submitted a letter [requesting] to transfer all these cases to Tharawaddy District Court,” said Khin Moe Moe, of the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network, adding that Letpadan Court would decide on Thursday whether or not the cases would be transferred.
She said she believed the transfer was being requested because authorities were worried about popular support for the students and thought it would be easier to have them stand trial close to Tharawaddy Prison. “They are transferring the case for security reasons,” said Khin Moe Moe, who represents 13 defendants.
Robert San Aung, who leads the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network team that is providing counsel to the students, said the court had yet to formally accept charges against the students.
He said, however, that it was likely that authorities in each of the townships that the students passed through on their protest march would seek to push charges against the defendants—an approach that could result in lengthy court procedures. “Every township where students walked through during the march will charge them,” Robert San Aung told reporters.
The lawyer said he had visited the defendants in prison and found that some were struggling to recover from head wounds they sustained during the police crackdown. “Some specialist doctors should come from Yangon to volunteer and give them treatment,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, the students sang songs as they were trucked into the court compound and in the afternoon police let one family member spend about 30 minutes with each of the detainees as they waited during a break in the court proceedings.
Khin Khin Yu, the mother of detained student Min Thwe Thhit, said she was worried about his well-being as she believed he was not receiving proper medical care for a broken hand that he sustained during the police crackdown. “I am worried for my son. I want to know whether he will have a chance to get an x-ray check at the hospital in prison, because they do not provide good treatment to them,” she said.
During the proceedings, Khin Khin Yu expressed her anger at authorities, shouting at the police, “Is there any transparency in this court? You guys are very brutal people. My son is not a rebel, why do you lock him up?”
Ni Ni Htwe, the mother of detained student Thiha Win Tin, said, “Where is the ‘good and clean government’ of President Thein Sein? His speeches are sweet like a honey, but his government beat my son and other students. These students are just peaceful protesters.”
Later, journalists were allowed to briefly talk to some of the students and The Irrawaddy managed to speak with Nandar Sit Aung, a prominent student activist who was arrested in Rangoon on March 27 for his role in the Letpadan protest.
“Today they added charges under articles 505(b) and 143 at the court in Letpadan. They have charged me with a lot of different charges,” said the activist, who in 2004 was handed a 17-year prison sentence by the former military regime for his activism, a sentence that was later commuted by President Thein Sein as part of a broader political prisoner amnesty.
Nandar Sit Aung said the Thein Sein government was “in the middle of the road from authoritarianism to democracy. Now, they can go towards democracy if they negotiate with our student movement—or they can go back to the past of the military regime and put us in prison.”
From Jan. 20 to early March, the group of more than 100 students and supporters marched from Mandalay to Rangoon to call for an overhaul of the Education Law. Authorities opposed the unauthorized march and stopped the main column of protestors at Letpadan, in southern Pegu Division, early last month.
A tense standoff between authorities and students led to a confrontation on March 10 when a large deployment of riot police violently dispersed the demonstration by beating and detaining dozens.
Lawyers have said the detained could face various charges including unlawful assembly, rioting, incitement and causing harm to a public servant. Some of the charges carry penalties of up to three years under articles 143, 145, 147, 332 and 505 (b) of Burma’s Penal Code.
On March 25, the court released 11 defendants on bail as they were Letpadan residents who had sought to coordinate logistics around the student protest when it was held up at the town for a week.
Khin Moe Moe, of the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network, said four underage students, including one 14-year-old defendant, were among the remaining detained. She said lawyers would request that authorities give them special treatment and transfer them from Tharawaddy Prison to a juvenile detention facility.
“Underage [defendants] are involved in this case… According to laws for juveniles, you cannot handcuff them or put them in a [regular] prison,” she said.