Yangon: Security forces attacked and detained around eight Myanmar activists protesting in downtown Yangon, campaigners and witnesses said Thursday, in a surge in tension over spreading student rallies calling for education reforms in the former junta-run nation.
Dozens of demonstrators were sent scattering after they were set upon by uniformed police officers and men wearing civilian clothes with red armbands who attacked the group with batons, according to witnesses and campaigners.
"We contacted one activist leader while he was being taken away in a vehicle. He told us that the protesters were beaten and arrested," Zaw Min, of the 88 Generation democracy campaign group, told AFP.
Pictures of a baton charge were shared widely on social media soon after the attack, one showing uniformed officers apparently lashing out at a female demonstrator. Those sporting red arm bands had the word for "Duty" emblazoned on them, a witness said.
Myanmar`s government is being closely watched in a key election year amid fears that reforms since authoritarian rule gave way to quasi-civilian administration in 2011 are stalling.
The group of about 50 protesters had gathered in the heart of Yangon, Myanmar`s main commercial hub, in solidarity with a student demonstration in the central town of Letpadan, where around 200 activists have been corralled by riot police since Monday.
Authorities have expressed determination to stop that group from continuing their planned march to Yangon, the site of several mass student demonstrations in Myanmar`s modern history that have convulsed the country.
Until now the authorities had appeared reluctant to take forceful action against the months-long student protests, despite the activists holding their demonstrations without permission. Tensions have risen since Tuesday when students ignored a deadline from authorities to disperse and give up plans of marching to Yangon, some 130 kilometres (80 miles) further south.
The students have rallied for months against education legislation, calling for changes to the new law including decentralising the school system, giving students the right to form unions and teaching in ethnic minority languages.
Talks between the government and the young activists had led to a rethink of the legislation by parliament, which is currently debating proposed changes.
But students earlier on Thursday told MPs they were pulling out of the discussions because of police efforts to stop the Letpadan activists from going to Yangon.
"The security of student protestors from the main march is at risk," the All Burma Federation of Students Unions said in an announcement.
Student activism is a potent political force in Myanmar with young campaigners at the forefront of several major uprisings, including a huge 1988 demonstration that prompted a bloody military assault under the former junta.
The 88 Generation is made up largely of student activists from that mass protest, which also saw the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi`s opposition.
A police officer at the scene in Yangon confirmed to AFP that seven activists had been arrested.
"No one was injured," he said, asking not to be named.
But witnesses described a more violent encounter.
"The authorities said they would give the protesters 30 minutes to disperse. But after 20 minutes, about a hundred people with red armbands attacked them," said one man who had been at the scene.
"Some activists were arrested after they were beaten," he added, requesting anonymity.