Hundreds of baton-wielding Myanmar police beat student activists Tuesday as they broke up another protest pressing for education reform, deepening concerns that authorities have not lost the repressive reflex of the junta era.
Crowds of young activists and monks scattered through the streets in the central town of Letpadan when riot police dispersed the rally, many frantically lashing out as they blocked streets and rounded up protesters, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
The crackdown has intensified concerns that authorities are resorting to repressive tactics of the previous authoritarian regime, as the nation stumbles towards a general election slated for the end this year.
It also comes just days after Myanmar authorities violently ended a supporting rally in the main city of Yangon, prompting outcry from rights campaigners.
The students have for months been demonstrating for reform in Letpadan, but plans by a core group to march to Yangon were halted on March 2 when police surrounded some 150 activists near a monastery in the dusty central town.
The standoff was abruptly ended on Tuesday, according to one student protester, who took shelter with some 70 other demonstrators in the monastery surrounded by police.
"The police beat us," he told AFP by telephone, requesting anonymity, adding several protesters had sustained injuries.
"We cannot accept this kind of crackdown," he added.
- 'Break the blockade' -
Soon afterwards, police were seen entering the monastery, according to an AFP reporter, and it was not immediately possible to contact with the protesters.
Demonstrators had earlier scuffled with police as they tried to push through the security blockade after authorities apparently reneged on an agreement to allow them to continue their march.
"If it isn't going to go as we agreed, we will break the blockade," activist Nanda Sit Aung told AFP ahead of the crackdown.
"They will choose whether they allow or arrest us," he said, adding their protest was peaceful and had been long announced to authorities.
Student campaigners have been at the forefront of several of Myanmar's major uprisings, including a huge 1988 demonstration that prompted a bloody military assault under the former junta.
The government has defended its Friday crackdown on an unauthorised rally in the heart of the commercial hub of Yangon, despite accusations from witnesses and campaigners that police and men in civilian clothes beat unarmed protesters with batons.
Eight activists were briefly held in the police action, which caused outrage in a country where student activism is a potent political force.
Police swiftly descended on a fresh rally in central Yangon sprung up on Tuesday, but there were no immediate reports of violence.
Observers fear democratic reforms in Myanmar, which is gradually emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, are stalling in the run-up to the election.
Students have rallied sporadically since November 2014 against a new education law, demanding changes to the legislation to decentralise the school system, teach in ethnic languages and allow the formation of student unions.
The government, which has held several rounds of talks with student representatives, has agreed to rethink the controversial law.
A special parliamentary committee is currently debating the proposed changes, with input from experts.
But the students themselves pulled out of the discussions last week in response to the police blockade of their main protest group in Letpadan.