Minister Defends Letpadan Crackdown, Disapproves of Street Protests

By Paul Vrieze 12 March 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s Information Minister Ye Htut has defended the violent police crackdown on protesting students earlier this week that led to dozens of beatings and arrests. He said the students carried responsibility for the incident because they had taken to the streets to enforce their demands for education reform.

Government mouthpiece The Global New Light of Myanmar quoted Ye Htut as saying that “the student protestors’ decision to march to Yangon instead of choosing democratic or parliamentary processes was the cause of the conflict.”

Student organizations took the streets to protest against the Education Law that the government and the Union Solidarity and Development Party-dominated Parliament passed in September, as students believe it fails to guarantee independence for higher education institutions.

The minister said authorities had tried their best to negotiate a peaceful resolution for the standoff at Letpadan, Pegu Division, where more than 100 demonstrators had been waiting for a week for the lifting of a police blockade. On Tuesday afternoon, it appeared an agreement had been reached to let the group enter Rangoon by car, but disagreements arose over the details of the plan and clashes erupted.

Riot police—which greatly outnumbered the students—used batons to severely beat students, participating monks and journalists, and then arrested 127 protestors, mostly students in their early 20s. The government said it plans to file criminal charges against many of the detained.

Opposition lawmakers and rights groups have been unified in their condemnation of the events and said it indicates growing government repression; foreign embassies expressed concern over the violence.

Ye Htut said the Letpadan crackdown was “a sorrowful incident,” but insisted “police were legally obligated to disperse them” as students had tried to remove police barricades. He went on to state that the crackdown did not indicate backsliding on government’s commitment to democratic reforms, which include free and fair elections scheduled for early November.

He then compared the Letpadan incident to the 2014 Ferguson unrest in the United States, where heavily-armed police were deployed to quell protests that arose over the discriminatory treatment of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers.

“[W]hen [Occupy] demonstrators on Wall Street were removed by police, or when protesters in Ferguson were dispersed with the use of tanks, ‘nobody spoke of US democracy having backtracked,’” state media quoted the minister as saying.

The Upper House Bill Committee is considering amendments to the Education Law in response to the students’ demands and is expected to release a list of suggested amendments by March 15.