Tensions boiled over at Tharawaddy courthouse on Tuesday as family members and supporters turned out to meet jailed students.
Close to 70 young defendants were brought to the court for their sixth pre-trail hearing, facing five charges stemming from a March education reform rally that ended in chaos.
The students are among the 127 that were arrested in Letpadan, Pegu Division after nationwide, student-led demonstrations against the National Education Law came to a head when a sit-in turned violent. Activists say that the law stifles economic freedom, and marches on Rangoon from all over the country were organised in protest.
On Tuesday crowds pressed up against a chain link fence to greet students as police marched them into the court house.
Student leader Thiha Win Tin leaned across the wire barricade to address the crowd.
“The government is running things the same way the military junta did,” he bellowed to his supporters. “It is obvious to everyone they treat the students like their enemy.”
Police dragged the student unionist away, causing outrage among the agitated crowd, which turned to tear down the wire separating them from the courthouse.
All together over eighty activists face charges, including being part of an unlawful assembly; continuing to be part of an unlawful assembly following orders to disperse; rioting; intent to harm or disturb a civil servant while conducting official duties; and disturbing public tranquillity.
Defence lawyer Robert San Aung pointed to the charge of disturbing public tranquility as the reason the jailed students were not eligible for bail.
“Apart from Article 505(b), the students should be allowed to seek bail for all the remaining charges. However, due to the 505 charge, they were denied bail. Then the court officers put them in handcuffs and manhandled them. This led to the commotion,” he said.
With its leaders jailed, the education reform movement appears to have lost momentum. However, their appetite for change remains, and public court appearances like Tuesday’s have become de facto protest rallies.
Students continue to demand the full reshaping of the National Education Law, which they say centralises control over schools and universities.
They say they’ve taken strength from support coming from across Burma, and the world.
Supporters include former US president George W. Bush, who recently wrote to one student enrolled in the ‘Liberty and Leadership Forum’ at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas.
“I was unable to go and accept my certificate in the United States as I have been in detention for my involvement in the education protests,” Phyo Phyo Aung said, “but I am happy to have received these words of encouragement from George and Laura Bush, and the Human Freedom community.
“Their support for our work is an encouragement to everyone in Burma fighting to bring about a democratic education system. And I am glad to know that the global community is aware of how crucial this situation is in our country.”