YANGON, Myanmar — In March hundreds of baton-wielding police bludgeoned a group of unarmed protesters in Letpadan, on the outskirts of Yangon. Officers kicked and punched dozens of activists before hustling them into vans. A menacing voice blasted from a megaphone, threatening legal action against the fleeing crowd.
With that, months of student-led protests calling for education reform in Myanmar came to an abrupt end. The crackdown marked the beginning of a spate of arrests that would increase nearly sixfold the number of political prisoners in the country from the previous year. Within days, 133 activists were detained. Some were snatched from their beds at night; others were dragged away from protest sites. By mid-April, most of the student leaders were in custody.
The protests were aimed at a controversial education law enacted in October that activists say limits academic freedoms and prohibits the formation of student unions. Activists began calling for amendments to the law more than six months ago, and earlier this year, the government agreed to re-evaluate the legislation, at the same time warning student protesters marching toward Yangon not to enter the city. After the crackdown, Myanmar’s parliament rejected most of the students’ recommendations.
Myanmar, which is emerging from half a century of military rule, has a history of crushing student-led dissent. In 1988, 3,000 civilians were massacred on the streets of Yangon as the army rolled in tanks to disperse swelling pro-democracy protests. Since 2011, the country has worked hard to shed its reputation as a totalitarian state, freeing thousands of imprisoned dissidents and easing media restrictions under the leadership of President Thein Sein, a former general. The U.S. government responded by lifting sanctions and boosting economic ties with Myanmar. One of the United States’ key conditions for engagement was the release of all political prisoners.
Recently, however, Myanmar’s reforms appear to have stalled, overshadowed by resurgent ethnic conflict, police brutality and a crackdown on protesters.
Ko Nanda Sitt Aung, a leader of Myanmar’s prominent activist group All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), was declared a fugitive by the government for his role in Letpadan. In defiance, he staged a demonstration in downtown Yangon to condemn police brutality during the March protest. Plainclothes police grabbed him at a bus stop on his way home.
Ko Nanda now faces five criminal charges under Myanmar’s draconian colonial-era penal code, including sedition and unlawful assembly, and risks more than 10 years in prison. As prescribed by Myanmar law, he will be charged in all 38 townships where he is suspected of having led protests. But according to his lawyer and father, U Htay, some of the accusations are completely fabricated.
“We checked with the police, and they said some cases were filed against him because they did not know who actually led the protests,” said U Htay.
This is not the first time Ko Nanda has been persecuted for his work with the ABFSU, a historic student union founded under a different name by independence hero Aung San in 1931 and banned by the junta in 1962. In 2004, Ko Nanda, then a young student teacher, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for distributing leaflets critical of the military regime and working with exiled pro-democracy groups to revive the student union. He was tortured so severely in prison that he was unable to walk for several days. In a 2004 cable leaked by WikiLeaks six years later, a U.S. Embassy representative in Yangon described his sentence as “business as usual for a regime that tolerates no dissent.”
Ko Nanda was released in January 2012 as part of a widely lauded amnesty ruling intended to signal Myanmar’s emergence from decades of iron-fisted rule. But U Htay fears that the government, currently led by former generals, has reverted to its old ways.
“The violent crackdown of the Letpadan protest left us all in dismay,” said U Htay, who spent five years as a political prisoner in the mid-1990s for his labor rights activism. “We learned a big political lesson that day.”
“If the government cannot even be generous about education reforms that do not harm anyone’s interest, then it is unlikely they will be generous about constitutional reforms that will challenge the army’s leading role in national politics,” he said.