YANGON (Reuters) - Baton-wielding police beat demonstrators showing their support for students blocked from marching into Myanmar’s largest city on Thursday, arresting eight and forcing many to flee, activists and witnesses said.
About 200 students have been locked in a standoff with police outside a Buddhist monastery in Letpadan, about 140 km (90 miles) north of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial hub, protesting against an education bill that they say stifles academic freedoms.
The government has barred them from Yangon, the site of numerous student-led demonstrations, including those in 1988 that sparked a pro-democracy movement that spread throughout the military-ruled country.
Thursday’s arrests marked a rise in tension between the government and students who have been holding protests in different parts of the country for two months.
Dozens of activists, including members of the ‘88 Generation who led the 1988 protests, gathered near the golden Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon to show support for the students in Letpadan.
Police arrested three ‘88 Generation members and five others, said Na Lynn, a student leader who spoke on the phone to one of the detainees.
Among those detained was prominent ‘88 Generation member Nilar Thein.
“Some of them, including Nilar Thein, were beaten in the commotion,” said her husband Ko Jimmy, who is also a member of the group.
Two witnesses who requested anonymity said plainclothes police wearing red arm bands made the arrests.
A Reuters witness saw about two dozen protesters run across the park next to the pagoda and climb a wall the other side.
Student leaders earlier boycotted a parliamentary hearing on the education bill, saying they would not take part until police allowed students to march to Yangon.
Military leaders brutally suppressed the 1988 protests and were subsequently overthrown by another group of generals who continued to restrict democratic freedoms and imprisoned thousands of activists, artists and writers.
A semi-civilian reformist government took power in 2011 after 49 years of military rule and its response to the current student protests has been decidedly more muted.
Police in Letpadan have blockaded student demonstrators and some supporters, placing barriers and vehicles in the street to restrict their movement, said Phyo Phyo Aung, of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions.
She said the students wanted to continue to Yangon by bus while playing student union songs through loudspeakers and flying red flags emblazoned with the symbol of the student movement, a golden peacock.
Writing by Jared Ferrie; Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun and Thin Lei Win in YANGON; Editing by Nick Macfie