Yangon: Authorities in Myanmar have filed criminal charges against 69 student activists and their supporters who were arrested two weeks ago when police cracked down on peaceful protests against a new education law.
Protesters remained defiant as they sang songs and waved at family and supporters when they were brought in prison vans from Tharyarwaddy prison to Letpadan court on Wednesday morning.
The charges filed against them involve five different counts ranging from hurting a public servant, which carries a maximum penalty of 3 years, to being a member of an unlawful assembly, which carries a 6-month prison sentence.
"The government is using the old method to quash any dissenting voice by charging protesters with unfair laws," said Robert San Aung, a prominent activist lawyer who will represent the students.
Police had detained 127 people altogether, but about 60 people including 28 students and 10 Buddhist monks were freed earlier, including enrolled students who had to sit for exams. The next hearing will be held on April 7.
Students across the country have been rallying for months demanding changes to the education law that they say curb academic freedom and prohibit students from engaging in political activities. The police crackdown that ended the weeklong standoff on March 10 prevented the protesters from reaching Yangon, the nation's largest city.
Myanmar's government is especially sensitive about protests in Yangon because the city was the scene of 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations largely led by students and brutally crushed by the former military junta, with an estimated 3,000 people killed.
Similar protests spread across the country, eventually leading to the collapse of the previous 26-year socialist military regime.
Myanmar's government has implemented reforms since taking office, including freeing junta-era political prisoners, but concerns have been raised that those reforms have stalled or reversed as activists continue to be thrown in jail for peacefully expressing their views.