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Dozens of Burmese activists shouted messages to relatives from packed prison vans outside a court Wednesday after being detained in a violent student protest crackdown that sparked international condemnation and fears of a return to junta-era repression.
Student-led rallies calling for education reform have twice been brutally suppressed in recent days, drawing fierce criticism from overseas and Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition, which said the tactics echoed those used under the former military government.
In chaotic scenes on Tuesday, police armed with batons lashed out at students and activists in the central town of Letpadan, arresting 127 people and carting them off to prison by the truckload.
Scores of activists appeared at a court in the town Wednesday for a hearing that was inaccessible even to family members.
“Our human rights have been violated!” shouted the detained activists, some sporting visible injuries, as they were whisked away from the court, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.
Family members said the group of 20 women and 40 men faced five separate charges relating to the protests, with another hearing on 25 March.
More protesters were taken to the court late Wednesday, but access to the building was barred by a heavy security presence of scores of police, an AFP photographer said.
Burma’s information ministry late Wednesday said “action will be taken” against those activists considered “masterminds” of the rally, in a statement on its website.
But current university students would be released “with kindness so they can continue their education” in the care of their parents, it said without giving further details.
Ten monks are also set to be sent back to their monastery.
“We are worried for our daughter’s situation. We have heard that she was beaten,” Ne Win, the father of graduate and activist Phyo Phyo Aung, told AFP earlier, as he waited outside Tharrawaddy Prison, where most protesters are believed to be held.
Students have long been at the forefront of political action in the former military-run nation’s turbulent history, leading mass protests in 1988 that saw the rise of Suu Kyi and her party but which were brutally quashed by the military.
The European Union, which has run programmes to train Burma’s decrepit police force, issued a statement voicing concern at the crackdowns, while the United States and Britain also expressed alarm.
Phone Piay Kywe, one of only two activists thought to have been released from detention, said police beatings had continued even after demonstrators were held.
“They beat all of us. They shoved our heads down and stamped on our feet. They hit us with batons. That is torture,” he said.
“Some people wouldn’t even remember how many times they were hit.”
Burma’s quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2011, has ushered in a number of major reforms that have lured foreign investment back into the isolated nation.
But observers fear democratic reforms are stalling as the country lurches towards a landmark election later this year.
Students have rallied for months against education legislation, calling for changes to a new law, including decentralising the school system, allowing student unions and teaching ethnic minority languages.
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party condemned the crackdowns as illegal on Wednesday.
“No law allows these types of beatings or crackdowns,” said NLD spokesman Nyan Win, himself a lawyer.
“What is happening nowadays is not in-line with the process of a democratic government. It is like the procedures under military rule,” he told AFP.
He raised particular concern about the use of men in plain clothes when police broke up a protest in Rangoon on 5 March, which was held in solidarity for those rallying at Letpadan.
Witnesses to the Rangoon crackdown saw men wearing red armbands, thought to be deputised civilians, beating protesters alongside police.
Mobs of civilians working alongside security forces to break up protests were a feared feature of life under military rule.
Burmese state media on Wednesday announced an inquiry into “whether security forces acted properly in dispersing the protestors” in the nation’s commercial hub. Its findings will be submitted to the president by 31 March.
Talks between the government and the young activists had led to a rethink of the legislation by parliament, which is currently debating proposed changes.
But students pulled out of the discussions last week because of police efforts to stop the Letpadan activists from going to Rangoon, officially known as Yangon.