Police in Letpadan have reacted with force against up to 200 students and their supporters after tensions boiled over at the protest site in the Pegu Division town at about 1:30 on Tuesday afternoon.
A DVB reporter covering the tense standoff said that police used batons to beat protestors, dragged some into trucks, and arrested others, including Buddhist monks.
According to unconfirmed eye-witnesses accounts, some journalists were also arrested at the scene, which was soon cleared of all demonstrators in the crackdown. A DVB reporter was slightly injured when he was beaten by a policeman in the melee.
Other students suffered exhaustion or fainted in the intense heat as the standoff continued throughout the morning.
An unconfirmed report came in after 2pm that a group of students, monks and activists had fled the violence and taken refuge in Aungmyay Beikman Monastery, which was then surrounded by security forces.
Earlier on Tuesday, scenes of jubilation were evident among the students when their representatives announced a breakthrough in talks with Pegu Division’s Border Affairs department.
Student negotiators claimed that officials agreed at about 10am that the rally could continue to Rangoon, provided they travelled by vehicle and that they did not chant.
The students were to be permitted to march a short distance to the local highway, before boarding cars to Rangoon.
But just after midday, many students emerged in front of police lines in the centre of Letpadan, apparently angry at the terms for the protest that had been set.
A face-to-face confrontation turned to pushes and threatening gestures, though no arrests or injuries were reported.
Tuesday’s incidents at Letpadan are the latest developments in the wave of student action against the unpopular National Education Law, which was adopted in 2014.
After “columns” of protestors in January began a march to Rangoon from sites all over the country – from Tavoy [Dawei] in the south to Mandalay in central Burma – authorities and students arranged a series of negotiations, held in Naypyidaw in February. During the faltering talks that followed, students’ ten-point list of demands, which include the adoption of ethnic languages in school curricula and the right to form student and teacher unions, were eventually formed into an amendment bill in concurrence with education officials in a breakthrough on 11 February.
This amendment bill was introduced to parliament, while education activists set a deadline of 28 February for government deliberations. After a ten-day hiatus from their protest action in the Pegu Division town of Letpadan, which they spent at Aungmyay Beikman monastery, students, led by the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, again took up the route to the former capital on 2 March, but had their route barricaded by police.
A sit-in ensued, with a deadlock between police and protestors occurring as terms for the march could not be reached. On 5 March, education activists boycotted a governmental briefing session on the amendment bill in reaction to events in Letpadan, and a solidarity protest in Rangoon was violently put down by police, with eight activists – five students and three 88 Generation members – arrested.
The following day it was the main protest at Letpadan that was the scene for arrests, as five students and a journalist were detained by police. All of those arrested have since been released.
The police action has garnered international condemnation – particularly for the government’s mobilisation of civilian strongmen, widely identified as the notorious Swan Arr Shin organisation that has historically been employed in quelling popular unrest.