RANGOON — The international community is “deeply concerned” by a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Letpadan, Pegu Division, on Tuesday that saw more than 100 demonstrators arrested and many injured by baton-wielding police.
A flood of almost identical statements from the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States roundly condemned the use of force against demonstrators, though some rights groups criticized the responses as weak and called for a reassessment of foreign engagement with the former pariah state.
“Simply saying they are deeply concerned isn’t enough,” read a statement by Burma Campaign UK, a London-based rights organization, stating that the international community did not take “sufficient action” to prevent violence.
The group has been particularly critical of an EU-backed police training program and alleged UK sales of crowd control and anti-riot equipment to the Burmese government. The EU delegation to Burma responded to recent criticisms on Tuesday with a statement posted on social media.
“The EU started training the police following direct requests from both the government and the NLD [National League for Democracy], in order to bring the MPF [Myanmar Police Force] in line with international standards and best practices,” read the statement.
“This was needed, and as events show, this need still remains. The fundamental purpose of the training is to increase the respect of human rights, stress the importance of negotiation and—only as a last resort— consider the use of proportional force. Any actions which go against these principles are of great concern to the EU.”
The statement also stressed that the European Union “does not train non-police forces and does not condone their use in police actions,” in reference to a crackdown on March 5 during which plainclothes men donning red armbands reading “duty” assisted police in dismantling a demonstration supporting the Letpadan students in downtown Rangoon.
Student demonstrations began in November 2014 in response to a new National Education Law that critics view as undemocratic. Demonstrations gained steam early this year, as a core column of protesters began a 400-mile march from Mandalay to Rangoon.
The government issued several warnings to the demonstrators not to enter the commercial capital, and on March 3 prevented the students from advancing beyond Letpadan, northwest of Rangoon.
Eight people were arrested and several were injured on March 5 when police and plainclothes men dispersed a solidarity protest in Rangoon. Days later, the Letpadan demonstrators vowed to continue their protest on March 10 at 10am.
They appeared set to do so as barbed-wire barricades were removed between the protest site, situated outside a monastery, and hundreds of police. Disputes over the conditions of leaving the site soon turned violent, and police were seen indiscriminately beating students, journalists and others present at the scene.
The Ministry of Information said that 127 people were arrested in the chaotic crackdown. Many were injured and those who escaped the scene fled to homes and jungles nearby. Some witnesses said police forced entry into locals’ homes to remove protesters in hiding.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday that the incident “suggests a disturbing return” to the tactics of Burma’s former military government, which was notorious for its brutal suppression and detention of activists.
“The savage beating of students by police and plainclothes thugs marks an ugly return to the street violence of military rule,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement. “The government needs to rein in abusive police, disband unaccountable auxiliaries, and permit peaceful demonstrations.”
Adams called for an investigation into the incident and urged foreign governments to “recalibrate their support for the Burmese government if it fails to protect the right to peaceful protest.”
Amnesty International struck a similar tune, calling the police response “disproportionate.”
“Police clearly used excessive force against protesters, and also beat helpless people who had fallen to the ground, which amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law,” Amnesty’s regional research director Rupert Abbott said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Anyone who has simply protested peacefully should not have to face reprisals, arrest or criminal charges for doing so. Myanmar’s authorities have a long and troubling history of locking up peaceful demonstrators—this must not be allowed to happen in this case.”