Opposition lawmakers on Wednesday criticized the actions of the Burmese police force during the crackdown on a student protest in Letpadan a day earlier, during which dozens of protestors were beaten and detained by riot police.
They said authorities had failed to keep their promise not to resort to violence against the protests and should immediately release all of the 127 detained students and their supporters, who were prevented from marching to Rangoon to demand Education Law reforms.
Nyo Nyo Thin, an independent lawmaker for Rangoon Division parliament, said she had been involved in talks between students and authorities before the violence and explained that both sides had agreed to let the students go to Rangoon by car until a disagreement arose over the details of the plan.
She said Pegu Division Border Affairs Minister Col. Thet Tun agreed to let students drive to Rangoon in cars that would leave every 15 minutes so that the group would be broken up. However, students wanted to walk as a group to trucks parked several hundred meters away that would then take to Rangoon.
As the students walked on swaying their flags, police objected and suddenly bottles and rocks were thrown. Violence erupted and police resorted to beatings and arrests to disperse the crowd.
Nyo Nyo Thin said authorities had objected to the students walking as a group to the waiting trucks as it “damages the government’s dignity. But I want to ask, what is their political dignity? They need to explain themselves.”
She said the police reaction had been disproportionate. “I strongly condemn the police brutal action as the government’s use of violent force is obvious to see. The government did not protect its citizens,” she said, adding, “The government needs to release the detained student protesters and supporters within 24 hours.”
Pe Than, a Lower House lawmaker with the Arakan National Party, said in a reaction that police had resorted to excessive force during the operations in Letpadan.
Kyaw Min, a Lower House lawmaker with the National League for Democracy who represents Letpadan constituency, said he had been shocked by the violent scenes.
“As it happened in my constituency I felt so sorry for the students,” he said, adding that he had offered to negotiate between the parties earlier this month but authorities dismissed him. “As a lawmaker, I could only suggest to the [Pegu Division] administration to act in accordance with the Constitution, which allows [people] civic rights to express themselves,” he said.
The NLD of Aung San Suu Kyi issued a statement in the wake of the violence calling for an independent government investigation into why police had resorted to force.
The Ministry of Information on Tuesday said in a statement on social media that police had acted in accordance with the law when it violently dispersed the students.
Aung Nay Paing, a leader the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, told The Irrawaddy that the detained students were being mistreated in custody.
“This is a violent crackdown. Our students were insulted verbally, beaten brutally and forced to sit like a prisoner during the arrest,” he said, adding that the student organizations would soon hold a press conference to dispel claims in state-run media that the demonstrators had initiated the violence.
Most of the detained students have reportedly been sent to Tharyawaddy Prison in Pegu.
On Feb. 14, lawmakers, the government, student leaders and education NGOs met and reached an agreement on resolving the demands of the students, who asked for an overhaul of the Education Law that was passed in September. They agreed on a number of points, including sending a draft of the proposed changes to Parliament, while authorities promised not to harm or prosecute the students.
Nyo Nyo Thin said with the police crackdown in Letpadan the government had violated the agreement not to harm or press charges against the students. She stressed that upcoming parliamentary discussions on the changes to the Education Law should include the views of the students.
Currently, the Upper House’s Bill Committee is discussing possible amendments to the Education Law in order to accommodate the students’ demands. On March 15, the committee is expected to present its proposed amendments to Parliament.
Many protesting student groups across Burma disbanded after the Feb. 14 agreement was reached, except for the Letpadan group from Mandalay, which tried to march on to Rangoon after the Education Ministry appeared to undermine the agreement by supporting the current Education Law.
The students and independent experts vehemently oppose the law as it grants the government controls over higher education institutions and undermines their independence.