March 12, 2015 / 11:27 AM / 2 years ago

Myanmar frees some student protesters arrested in violent crackdown

Student protesters are seen gripping on to the bars of a prison vehicle as they are transported to a court in Letpadan March 11, 2015.Soe Zeya Tun

LETPADAN (Reuters) - Myanmar on Thursday freed from jail more than a dozen students detained this week in a violent crackdown in which riot police beat protesters with batons and arrested 127 people after a lengthy standoff.

Tuesday's crackdown in the town of Letpadan, about 140 km (90 miles) north of Yangon, followed a standoff of more than a week with security forces who blocked the students from marching to the commercial capital to protest against an education bill they said would stifle academic freedom.

At least 14 students were freed from a prison in Letpadan on Thursday and the government plans to release a total of 27, said a district official who requested anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"As students, we are not demanding power; we are just demanding to change the education law," said one protester, Yin Mon Mon Aung.

"I also want to say to police not to use violence against students," he told Reuters after his release.

Police had interrogated those arrested to determine if they were "real students" and authorities were contacting their parents "to hand them over properly", the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.

"However, action will be taken against those who commit criminal acts, instigate instability and lead the protests behind the scene," it added.

Criminal charges against student leaders could trigger a new wave of protests, said Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation activists who led student protests in 1988 that grew into a country-wide pro-democracy movement before being brutally suppressed by the military government.

"We are calling for the release of all those detained," Ko Ko Gyi told Reuters. "If they release only some students, it will be another spark."

Student leaders have rejected accusations that they instigated violence. The United States and the European Union, which have backed Myanmar's move towards democracy after half a century of military rule, have condemned the violence by police.

Security forces were "legally obligated to disperse" the protest once students attempted to breach police barricades, government spokesman Ye Htut told the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

Zaw Htay, a senior official of the office of the president, told Reuters "some policemen were emotional and aggressive in handling the angry mob", and the government was investigating the incident.

Additional reporting by Simon Webb in Yangon; Writing by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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