Myanmar student protesters defy deadline to disperse

Phyo Hein Kyaw
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Myanmar police confront students during a protest march demanding education reform in Letpadan town, north of Yangon on March 3, 2015

Myanmar police confront students during a protest march demanding education reform in Letpadan town, north of Yangon on March 3, 2015 (AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)

Student protesters calling for education reform on Tuesday defied an order to disperse in a tense standoff with hundreds of riot police in central Myanmar.

Some 200 young activists -- many sporting bandanas with the fighting peacock symbol of student protest -- chanted "we are unified!" as they maintained a sit-in at a monastery compound in the town of Letpadan.

The group, which has been joined by around a dozen monks, has been tightly encircled by security forces since Monday.

Authorities in the formerly army-run nation have vowed to halt the activists' planned march to the nation's main city Yangon, some 130 kilometres (80 miles) further south and the scene of previous major student-led demonstrations.

"The police are still blocking our way. We will not move from here until we get our demands," student leader Min Thwe Thit told AFP.

He said some protesters had decided to go on hunger strike to underscore their calls to be allowed to continue marching.

The situation remained tense Tuesday evening after the group, which is protesting without permission, ignored a deadline to disperse by 4pm local time (0930 GMT).

"They need to stop. If they don't follow what we say, we need to take action against them," said government spokesman Ye Htut.

He urged the protesters to halt their rally and await the deliberations of parliament, which is rethinking a controversial education bill that the students say is undemocratic.

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

Authorities have appeared particularly keen to avoid any large gathering of students in Yangon, where major protests have previously erupted.

Some half a dozen police vans were seen in the centre of the city on Tuesday evening after a small group of activists briefly gathered in the city.

Students have rallied for months against the education legislation, calling for changes to the new law including decentralising the education system, giving students the right to form unions and teaching in ethnic minority languages.

They have been joined by ordinary people and monks in their march, which began in the central city of Mandalay in January.

The student group has been camped at the monastery since suspending its march last week after negotiations with the government.

The protesters have asked the home affairs ministry for permission to continue their march and to play protest songs and wave their flag, according to Min Thwe Thit.

The rallies initially began in November before flaring up again this year, with several different student groups launching marches from across the country, where protests without permission often result in arrests.

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has undertaken a wide range of reforms since replacing military rule in 2011 and ending the country's decades of isolation.

But rights groups and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have raised concerns that reforms are stalling.