RANGOON — Several students who were caught up in Tuesday’s police crackdown on a demonstration at Letpadan have denied state media allegations that demonstrators started the violence, and they said police used excessive force.
Reports in state media in recent days have said students began removing police barricades and started throwing rocks on Tuesday afternoon forcing police to disperse the demonstrators.
The police action led to severe beatings and arrests of dozens of students and their supporters. Police greatly outnumbered the students and groups of officers could be seen beating individual students, while some police smashed a vehicle belonging to the demonstrators.
A total 127 students, mostly in their early 20s, have been detained since and many face criminal charges. State media reported that 16 officers were injured.
Students who participated in the protests said that after demonstrators moved closer to the police ranks in order to demand passage officers began hurling rocks at the students, sparking a confrontation.
Student Zin Win Htut said, “First we pushed towards the front to penetrate [the police line], then the police kicked the students’ legs. Then each of the sides could control the situation and it became stable again. But after that, many stones came out from the police side.”
Zin Win Htut said by phone that he was still in hiding and, like many other students, afraid to go home because police had been visiting the family homes of some of the students in order to search for participants in the Letpadan protest.
An Irrawaddy photographer who witnessed the protest said that as students faced off with police a water bottle was thrown at the officers, who responded by throwing stones. Soon after, clashes erupted and police dispersed the crowd by beating and arrests.
Some 80 students ran to a nearby Buddhist pagoda monastery while being chased by police and tried to seek shelter.
Student protestor Phone Pyay Kywe said police then surrounded the pagoda monastery and demanded the students leave the building and be taken into detention.
“All of our students agreed to be caught and negotiated with police so that we will come out from the building one by one and they won’t beat us,” he said, adding, however, that after students were detained and forced to squat some officers hit them.
“They kicked my knee; my ribs were hit with batons and my head and neck too. All the students who were detained were hit and they tortured us as they pleased,” he alleged.
Phone Pyay Kyaw said he saw a journalist being beaten by police, even though he identified himself with a press card. “They beat him and they said journalists’ involvement will create trouble for us,” he added.
Activist Myint Myint, 52, who had been supporting the students together with her husband, said police had beaten the protestors after they had come out of the pagoda.
“It was horrible, the police officers ran and hit the students and shouted: ‘Don’t you dare to protest! “Don’t you dare to shout your slogan!’” she said, adding that she had managed to escape because some local residents hid her and gave her different clothes to change into. Her husband remains in detention.
Phone Pyay Kyaw said that although there were many cases of police brutality, there had also been officers who had tried to calm the situation and prevent the beatings, adding that some local villagers had used slingshots to injure policemen.
“I’m afraid because the media only report about polices hitting the students it will have a [bad] effect on good police officers,” he said. “The police officers are different; some police hit us, but some police gave us food and water—so I want to say that not all policemen are bad.”