Myanmar student protesters go on trial

12 May 2015 / 20:35 H.

THARRAWADDY: Dozens of Myanmar activists went on trial Tuesday in a case that has sparked international alarm and raised fears of a return to junta-era tactics in the slowly reforming nation.
The mostly young activists were arrested two months ago during a police crackdown on student-led protests calling for education reform in what was one of the most concerted challenges to the government of reformist Prime Minister Thein Sein.
The 70 accused are facing a raft of charges including unlawful assembly and rioting — offences that lawyers say could see them jailed for up to almost 10 years.
Around 200 supporters and family members gathered outside the courthouse in the central town of Tharrawaddy as the students arrived, many of them shouting slogans, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
"The trial will take place every Tuesday," lawyer Aung Thein, who is representing some of the students, told AFP.
Myanmar's quasi-civilian government introduced much-praised reforms after a half-century of military rule ended in 2011. But some observers fear these are stalling as the country heads towards a landmark election later this year.
Students have been agitating for months calling for changes to a new education law, including decentralising the school system, allowing student unions and teaching in ethnic-minority languages.
In March more than 100 demonstrators were arrested in the town of Letpadan when student protesters, who had been trying to meet with fellow activists in the commercial capital Yangon, clashed with baton-wielding riot police blocking their way.
That crackdown came just days after police broke up a student rally in Yangon, helped by men in civilian clothes, in moves that Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party said echoed tactics under the former junta.
The European Union, which has run programmes to train Myanmar's decrepit police force, voiced concern over the arrests, while the United States and United Nations also expressed alarm.
Students have long been at the forefront of political action in the nation's turbulent history, leading mass protests in 1988 which saw the rise of democracy campaigner Suu Kyi and her party but which were brutally quashed by the military.
Myanmar MPs are redrafting the controversial education bill in response to an outcry from students and activists.
Last month the country's upper house said students should be allowed to form unions for the first time in decades, one of the major issues activists had been campaigning for.
But the revised bill looks set to fall short of other key demands from education activists, as conservative forces have sought to dampen the amendments. – AFP

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