YANGON (Reuters) - A student march through central Myanmar in protest against a new education law began as an unremarkable procession from the country’s seat of learning and culture, Mandalay, to the commercial hub of Yangon.
But a little over a week ago, it morphed into a wider protest for political rights that prompted a violent crackdown by police, underlining the troubled nature of Myanmar’s own march toward democracy.
“I lived under military rule all my life and I never experienced such a crackdown,” said Maung Moccy, a student leader and former political prisoner who said he saw police officers batter unarmed students with wooden batons.
“Honestly, I‘m afraid they have decided to backslide on democracy.”
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 in the town of Letpadan, about 140 km (90) miles north of Yangon.
The opposition National League for Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and Myanmar’s icon of political freedom, demanded an inquiry.
Political temperatures are rising in Myanmar as it prepares for parliamentary elections later this year. Ethnic rebels are battling the army near the borders with China and Thailand while the United Nations has accused the government of backtracking on pledges to protect human rights, especially in northern Rakhine state, home to the minority Rohingya Muslims.
The pace of change started by the government of reformist President Thein Sein appears to have slowed, or even stalled.
His government took power in 2011 after 49 years of military rule, but Thein Sein and many of his cabinet colleagues are former generals and serving officers have a guaranteed quarter of the seats in parliament.
Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based independent political analyst, said Myanmar was changing from extremely authoritarian government to a democracy.
“That’s a huge transformation that will take a very long time,” he said.
Of the violence, Horsey said: “It raises very disturbing questions that the government needs to address. It doesn’t mean the reform process is dead. It highlights how complicated and long the reform process will be.”
Tensions over the education policy started in September after the government announced a new law aimed at setting up an independent body to govern universities. Student groups said the law would reduce academic independence and that they should have been consulted before it was drafted.
By February, a handful of student groups had begun marching in protest towards Yangon. Most of them returned home after the government began negotiations to amend the law, but a core group that had set out from Mandalay stopped in Letpadan, where authorities blocked them from advancing.
After a stand-off that lasted almost two weeks, the students agreed to go home, but wanted to carry their protest flags and sing revolutionary songs.
“We always try to make them give up their power, give up military rule,” said Maung Moccy, the student leader. “Today, we want a genuine democratic government.”
Witnesses said that students, monks and journalists were attacked by police when negotiations fell apart.
On Thursday, the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper quoted government spokesman Ye Htut as saying: “The government’s handling of the protest will have no impact on democratic reform.”
Ye Htut said the conflict began because the students decided to continue their protest march to Yangon rather than using the parliamentary process to amend the education bill.
“Despite requests for peaceful negotiations, student protesters tried to penetrate the police blockade and the police were legally obligated to disperse them,” he told the newspaper.
Zaw Htay, a senior official from the office of the president, told Reuters that the violence showed the need for continued training of the police and said the government was investigating the incident.
“I can understand that some policemen were emotional and aggressive in handling the angry mob,” he said. “At the same time, I noticed some of them tried to maintain control and give protection.”
In Myanmar, governments have been wary of student protests because of the pivotal role they have played in the country’s history. Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Aung San, was a student leader when he began opposing the British colonial government.
Student-led protests in Yangon in 1988 sparked a pro-democracy movement that spread throughout the country before being brutally suppressed by the military government.
Complicating matters are laws aimed at suppressing dissent, which remain on the books from the military government era and earlier.
In Letpadan, protesters were accused of violating the Peaceful Assembly Law. The law is a legacy of the former junta and has been amended under the new government, but New York-based Human Rights Watch has called it“ seriously flawed”, because it requires local government permission for any gathering.
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan