Myanmar student activists to appear in court: relatives

THARRAWADDY , Myanmar (AFP) - Dozens of Myanmar activists were expected to appear in court in the central town of Letpadan Wednesday after they were arrested in a police crackdown on a student-led protest that sparked international alarm.

Around 100 demonstrators remain in custody more than two weeks after baton-wielding police brought a violent end to the rally calling for education reform, in violent scenes drawing criticism that the nation was reverting to repressive tactics seen under military rule.

Several dozen relatives, activists and journalists waited outside the gates of Tharrawaddy prison, near Letpadan, where most of the protesters are believed to be detained, as three large trucks filled with police, many of whom were armed, drove into the compound.

Worried relatives, who have had only fleeting contact with their loved ones, claim activists have been mistreated in prison and have little information about the legal action they face.

"My daughter still doesn't know what kind of charges have been pressed against them. They haven't been told anything clearly yet," said Ne Win, adding that relatives would only learn more at the court hearing.

He said his daughter Phyo Phyo Aung was beaten around the head "about six times" after being arrested and claimed authorities had taken urine samples from female activists to conduct pregnancy tests.

"We think the authorities want to crush the young ones' dignity by doing so. It was such dirty play," he told AFP.

Myanmar authorities, who have yet to release exact details of the case against the activists, were unavailable for comment.

Observers fear Myanmar's much-lauded reforms are stalling as the country lurches towards a landmark election later this year.

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 Aung San Suu Kyi and her party but which were brutally quashed by the military.

The March 10 crackdown on the protest in Letpadan came just days after police broke up a student rally in Yangon, helped by men in civilian clothes, in moves that Suu Kyi's opposition party said echoed tactics under the former junta.

The European Union, which has run programmes to train Myanmar's decrepit police force, has voiced concern at the crackdowns, while the United States and United Nations also expressed alarm.

Students have rallied in Myanmar 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.

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 authorities had expressed determination to stop a march from Mandalay in central Myanmar to Yangon, which began in January.

State media has announced an inquiry into the crackdown in Yangon and whether security forces "acted properly in dispersing the protesters", with findings to be submitted to the president by March 31.

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