Letpadan: Scores of Myanmar protesters were arrested when baton-wielding police dispersed a student rally Tuesday, as the second crackdown in days deepens fears that authorities are returning to the repressive reflexes of the junta era.
Two large truckloads of protesters were taken away after riot police violently broke up the rally in the central town of Letpadan, according to an AFP reporter on the scene, ending over a week of stalemate between the authorities and students calling for education reforms.
The Ministry of Information said 127 people, including 20 women, were arrested in a statement posted on its website. A senior police officer confirmed protesters had been injured.
"Some were injured and taken to hospitals for treatment," the police official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that some 16 police officers were also hurt by rocks thrown by demonstrators.
The crackdown has intensified concerns that authorities are resorting to the repressive tactics of the previous authoritarian regime, as the nation stumbles towards a general election slated for the end this year.
It also comes just days after authorities used violence to end a supporting rally in the commercial hub of Yangon, prompting condemnation from rights campaigners.
Criticising the use of "excessive force" in Letpadan, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said the "disguise has come off and we are back to the bad old Burma of yesteryear," referring to the country by its previous name.
The embassy of former colonial power Britain tweeted that it was "deeply concerned" about Tuesday`s events, while its US counterpart also took to Twitter urging "patience, compromise and restraint" on Myanmar`s path to democracy. Myanmar`s quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2011, has ushered in a number of major reforms that have lured foreign investment back into the isolated nation. But observers fear democratic reforms are stalling.
Government spokesman Ye Htut defended the police after Tuesday`s violence, saying they were forced to react to provocation by the protesters.
"After many warnings that were not followed, police had to use force to disperse the protest because (protesters) attacked them and tried to destroy barricades," he said in a post on his Facebook page.
The students have for months been demonstrating for reform in Letpadan, but plans by a core group to march to Yangon were halted on March 2 when police surrounded some 150 activists near a monastery in the dusty central town.
Tempers frayed early Tuesday when demonstrators tried to push through the security blockade after authorities apparently reneged on an agreement to allow them to continue their march.
"The police beat us," one student protester, requesting anonymity, told AFP by telephone as he took shelter with some 70 other demonstrators in a monastery.
Student campaigners have been at the forefront of several of Myanmar`s major uprisings, including a huge 1988 demonstration that prompted a bloody military assault under the former junta.
The government has also defended its Friday crackdown on an unauthorised rally in Yangon from accusations that police and men in civilian clothes beat unarmed protesters with batons.
Police swiftly descended on a fresh rally in central Yangon on Tuesday, but there were no reports of violence.
Students have demonstrated sporadically since November 2014 against a new education law, demanding changes to the legislation to decentralise the school system, teach in ethnic languages and allow the formation of student unions.
The government, which has held several rounds of talks with student representatives, has agreed to rethink the controversial law.
A special parliamentary committee is currently debating the proposed changes, with input from experts.
But the students themselves pulled out of the discussions last week in response to the police blockade of their main protest group in Letpadan.
: Myanmar police on Tuesday launched a brutal crackdown on protesting students who attempted to push through barricades in order to continue their march in Letpadan, 140 km north of Yangon, for education reforms.
According to officials, the crackdown began in the afternoon when police began hitting students and media persons indiscriminately with their batons, The Myanmar Times reported.
The police force was at least 500-strong, with a significant presence of security forces in the crowd.
"They beat the journalists, so I had to run away," a student protestor said.
He said he saw police beating student leaders who had "fallen down on the ground".
Initial reports indicated that some of the student leaders had been arrested, the officials added.
The main cause of the protests are changes the students want to be made in the new education law which they say centralises control over higher education.
The protests first began in Mandalay in January.