More than 20 political activists were detained across Myanmar ahead of a planned commemoration yesterday of the 50th anniversary of a brutal military crackdown on students. Fellow activists said the detentions were proof that the government remains repressive, despite the president’s widely praised reforms.
Kyaw Ko Ko, leader of the All Burma Federation of Students Union, said that 23 people had been arrested in the crackdown, which began to unfold on Friday night.
Another leading activist, Ko Ko Gyi, said the detainees were expected to be released later on Saturday.
“Even when the president has repeatedly said his government is making real reforms, it is very disappointing that there are some in the government who still cannot abandon their old habits, if we looked at what happened [on Friday],” said Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent leader of Myanmar’s failed 1988 democracy uprising, who has spent many years in prison for his activism.
Those detained included several activists who were freed from prison in January under an amnesty for political prisoners, Kyaw Ko Ko said. The amnesty was part of the liberalization policies initiated by President Thein Sein’s government to promote political reconciliation.
On July 7, 1962, students in what was then known as Rangoon staged a protest against the military regime of General Ne Win, which had taken power four months earlier. Their protest was suppressed by force and on July 8, the army blew up the student union building in what was then Rangoon University. It is believed that dozens of students were killed in the crackdown.
Rangoon is the former name of Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar.
Ne Win’s 1962 coup marked the beginning of almost five decades of repressive military rule. Thein Sein, a former army general, came to power with military backing after a 2010 general election. He has initiated reforms, including reconciliation with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, that are intended to boost economic development in the impoverished nation and have been well received by the international community.
Those detained in the latest crackdown included four activists from Yangon, four from Mandalay, four from Shwebo, seven from Myingyan, three from Lashio and one from Sagaing, according to Kyaw Ko Ko.
“Whether they were taken for just a day or an hour, this must be regarded as an arrest,” Min Ko Naing, another 1988 activist, told a crowd of nearly 300 people gathered at the Yangon office of the 88 Generation Students group. “The authorities cannot deny that they are re-arresting the students. We will try as much as we can for their release.”
Min Ko Naing said he was impressed by the courage displayed by the new generation of student activists who were organizing commemoration events designed to recall the struggle against military rule half a century ago.
The previous military regime often arrested dissidents and jailed them under broad national security laws. Thein Sein’s government has so far avoided such moves, but still shows wariness of protests that could spark more general unrest. Earlier this year, some of those who organized protests against frequent power shortages were taken in for questioning, but released quickly without charge.