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Protesting students and their supporters in Letpadan awoke on Wednesday to a reinforced police blockade.
Barbed wire fences cut a rift between demonstrators and police, where the night before officers and students had ended a nervous day by chatting and sharing snacks.
Tensions have also spilled into other major centres across Burma. Rallies in support of the students were held in the regional capitals of Mandalay and Rangoon, as well as Pakkouku, Monywa and Prome.
Students and activists in Prome [also written Pyay], which lies close to Letpadan in Pegu Division, had attempted to join their fellow protesters. Their route was blocked in the town of Minhla by riot police who had been ordered to prevent supporters from joining the demonstration’s vanguard in Letpadan.
One activist told DVB that police had resorted to force.
“Our truck was repeatedly checked along the way and we were not allowed to continue. Other vehicles were allowed through, so we called for them to treat us equally and let us pass too,” she said.
“We then blocked the road. The police accused us of violent conduct, and came charging at us with batons raised. I tried to dodge a baton swing and was grazed in the face.”
Police in Minhla told protesters to sit tight and wait for the situation in Letpadan to be resolved.
“We have been instructed to stop the protestors. But I would like to explain the situation – negotiations are scheduled for tomorrow and we are requesting that protestors wait for the results,” said an officer at the scene.
The demonstrations coincide with parliamentary discussion on amendments to the widely unpopular National Education Law. Students have opposed the enacted legislations since being frozen out of the drafting process early last year. Protests heightened in November, shortly after the bill was passed.
Two weeks ago a pause in the students’ nationwide march on Rangoon was agreed, after Burma’s Education Ministry resolved to revisit the enacted legislation to include student-supported amendments.
Among an eleven-point list of demands made by students to the ministry is a set mandate for the existence of Student Unions, as well as an enshrined role for students and teachers in the drafting of all future legislation pertaining to education. The students also want to see the portion of the budget dedicated to education increased dramatically.
Now, students say they are fed up with the time it is taking for amendments to be pushed through.
However, the main protest group, lead by members of the All Burma Federation of Students Unions, has for three days been prevented from leaving the Letpadan monastery, where its members have been encamped since 19 February.
Pol. Lt-Col Nanda Win, whose officers have faced off with the Letpadan students for the past three days, says he wants to ensure the situation is resolved peacefully.
“We are just drawing up positions here, with no other intention other than to mark a clear line, and to create space. We don’t want any outside disturbances,” he assured the crowd.
“We aim to solve this issue calmly and peacefully and do not plan to resort to violence,” he said.