Myanmar police charge 14 garment workers as protests gather pace

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar police have charged 14 garment workers with rioting following a crackdown on a strike, state media said on Friday, as authorities face increasing criticism for their handling of a series of protests.

The workers, eight men and six women, face jail if convicted. They were arrested on Wednesday after blocking roads to the commercial hub of Yangon in a protest over wages, the Global New Light of Myanmar reported.

Police broke the strike by hundreds of factory workers on Wednesday and most of the employees have since returned to their jobs, the report said.

Those arrested "face up to two years in prison and fines if convicted" under the Rioting Act, it added.

Observers fear democratic reforms in Myanmar, which is gradually emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, are stalling in the run-up to a breakthrough general election slated for the end of this year.

Recent ugly crackdowns on protests are raising concerns that the security forces have not lost the repressive reflex forged during the junta era.

On Thursday, uniformed police backed by men in civilian clothes used batons to beat activists protesting in downtown Yangon in solidarity with a rolling student demonstration calling for education reform.

Eight activists were arrested but released early Friday without charge, one of them told AFP.

"What happened yesterday was completely unacceptable with the authorities using men in plain clothes to launch a crackdown," said Nilar Thein, a leader of 88 Generation students group who was released on Friday.

"The students have been protesting peacefully," she added.

Student activism is a potent political force in Myanmar with young campaigners at the forefront of several major uprisings, including a huge 1988 demonstration that prompted a bloody military assault under the former junta.

The 88 Generation is made up largely of student activists from that mass protest, which also saw the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition.

Students have rallied for months against an education law, demanding changes to the legislation to decentralise the school system, teach in ethnic languages and allow the formation of student unions.

A few hundred students remain surrounded by riot police near a monastery in Letpadan after refusing to give up their plans to march to Yangon.

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