MANDALAY — The Tharrawaddy Township Court in Pegu Division on Tuesday released an underage student detainee on bail, after two months in prison for his alleged involvement in an illegal protest for education reform that was violently dispersed by police.
Aung Min Khaing, a high school student from Shwebo, was detained along with more than 100 other students after the crackdown of a peaceful student protest in Letpadan, Pegu Division, on March 10. The incident brought a violent end to the students’ march of more than 300 miles from Mandalay to Rangoon, with authorities refusing to allow the protestors to advance beyond Letpadan, about 80 miles northwest of the commercial capital.
“The court said my case would be handed over to the juvenile court and that I was entitled to bail because I am under 18, so I was released from detention,” said Aung Min Khaing, who is president of the Shwebo district high school students’ union.
In the days following the March 10 crackdown, a photograph of Aung Min Khaing captured by a Reuter’s photographer was widely published as a portrait of the police’s brutality in breaking up the protest. The student is pictured fleeing from baton-wielding police officers, a half-dozen of which had surrounded him on three sides.
Aung Min Khaing on Tuesday recalled the “terrifying” incident.
“Although I pleaded with the police not to beat me and said I would go with them peacefully, the police beat my head so badly. My head was covered with blood and I felt so dizzy that I couldn’t stand up on my own,” Aung Min Khaing said.
“A policeman helped me stand up and took me to the police vehicle. I thought that I was going to die soon. When I was put in prison with the other students, I was treated with Paracetamol and vitamin B6 alone. The nurse there said my head injuries did not require stitches,” he said, adding that substandard medical care and unsanitary conditions continued to be problems for the students who remain behind bars.
“The water to bathe ourselves is so dirty that we suffered from scabies and skin rashes. Poor ventilation inside the prison building also caused us to sweat excessively and some suffer from headaches and dizziness,” he said.
According to a lawyer representing the detainees, two other underage students remain in the prison awaiting authorities’ decision on whether they will be granted bail. The juvenile court in Tharrawaddy Township will hear the case of Aung Min Khaing on May 26.
“He has to face about five charges in the juvenile court, including unlawful assembly, incitement, rioting and causing harm to the policemen, which could see him sentenced to three years’ imprisonment,” said Robert San Aung, the lawyer.
There are nearly 70 students who remain in Tharrawaddy Prison and face similar charges. About 20 of the detainees are seeking bail.
Robert San Aung said representatives from the US, French, German and EU embassies were on hand for the students’ latest hearing on Tuesday and spoke with some of the detainees. The lawyer said the diplomatic staffers’ presence indicated that the international community was keeping an eye on the case to ensure a fair outcome.
In testimony on Tuesday, Police Maj. Phone Myint reignited a controversy over the European Union’s link to the crackdown, telling the judge that “the students were dispersed in accordance with training given by the EU.” That assertion has been adamantly denied by the European Union, which is providing police training in crowd control techniques but in the days following the incident was quick to condemn the police’s heavy-handedness.
The student activists were arrested for protesting a National Education Law passed last year in a process that they said was not sufficiently consultative. Their demands for amendments to the legislation are expected to be taken up by Parliament during its current session, which began on Monday.
May Sitt Paing contributed reporting from Tharrawaddy.