Riot police in Myanmar clashed with students protesting over a controversial education bill on Tuesday, beating students and monks with batons in a crackdown that drew strong international criticism over the use of force.
Many protesters in the town of Letpadan were injured and detained as they tried to break through police lines following a week-long standoff that began when security forces halted their march from Mandalay to Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
A police official said: "About 120 activists including students and supporters were detained. Some were injured and taken to hospitals for treatment."
Media reports said that 127 people were arrested, including 65 students and 62 villagers. A member of the National Network for Education Reform told Al Jazeera that "The authorities were clearly in force and geared up to end this as violently and as quickly as they could."
Journalists at the scene reported excessive violence on the part of security forces. Both protesters and police used slingshots against each other, according to a Reuters witness.
The student demonstrators have been marching since January from Mandalay to Yangon, arguing that the education bill would centralize control over high education and restrict academic freedom if it became law. Protests, deemed illegal, first began in November, when hundreds marched through the capital.
Last week, security forces prevented around 200 students from marching any further than Letpadan, 90 miles north of Yangon, and tensions began to rise when police surrounded a monastery where students were camping.
On Friday, five students who broke away from the protest were arrested by police. A spokeswoman for the US State Department, expressing concern over arrests, said: "Such actions are not in keeping with Burma's [Myanmar] efforts to transition to full democracy."
"We respect the right of protesters to assemble peacefully. This is obviously an important part of any democratic society."
Tuesday's clashes come days after the police dispersed another protest over the education bill in Yangon, where eight demonstrators were arrested. The city has over the years witnessed some violent crackdowns on protests against the military government, including the uprising of 1988 where protesters called for democracy and an end to the dictatorship. It was estimated that three thousand protesters died in the rebellion, and thousands more arrested.
Military rule persisted for another two decades until 2010, where the country began its transition to civilian rule, yet there have been serious concerns over the way in which its police operate. A Human Rights Watch review of Burma in 2013 drew attention to how police failed to intervene when Rohingya Muslim communities in central Myanmar were targeted and attacked by Buddhist mobs. There were even reported instances of police taking part in the anti-Muslim violence.
In February 2014, the European Union Delegation to Myanmar, concerned about the police's human rights performance, launched the Crowd Management Training program, a project to train police "that respects and protects democratic rights of citizens" and "change the way they operate," funded with up to 10 million euros ($10.7m). The Delegation also condemned the Letpadan crackdown, saying that it "deeply regrets the use of force against peaceful demonstrators."
Myanmar's laws on demonstrations have also been criticized recently, and described as being applied haphazardly, with police allowing some protests to take place and others not. In June 2014, the parliament amended the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which according to ARTICLE 19, a UK-based human rights group which campaigns for freedom of expression and information, introduced "greater ambiguity to the legislation and do not bring it into compliance with international human rights law."
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