The government of Burma has filed charges against 80 demonstrators arrested in the southern town of Letpadan during a protest march March 10. After many weeks of largely peaceful demonstrations, police acted suddenly and used excessive force in confronting the protesters.
The demonstrators, mostly members of the All Burma Federation of Students Unions, had planned to walk from Mandalay to Rangoon demanding reform of the National Education Law passed by Parliament last September. They say it stifles academic freedom.
Protesters and authorities reportedly had reached an agreement that could have led to a peaceful outcome, but a confrontation on route in Letpadan led to the arrest of 127 demonstrators, including students, monks and journalists. The government has also issued arrest warrants for several activist leaders not present at the march, and at least one of them has been arrested.
The United States remains deeply committed to supporting Burma’s successful democratic transition. But we are concerned by the criminal charges filed against peaceful protesters. We call for the immediate, unconditional release of all individuals being detained in the country as a result of exercising their right to peacefully assemble. We are also concerned about the treatment of these students, as well as the treatment of all political prisoners, detained in Burma’s prisons.
While the Burmese government has made demonstrable progress in its transition to democracy under civilian rule, the recent incidents of police using excessive force against protesters, including the ones in Rangoon on March 5 and in Letpadan on March 10, undermine reconciliation efforts and threaten to diminish mutual trust in Burma’s reform process. How the government and people of Burma decide to proceed from here will determine whether these events hold the country back or offer an opportunity to propel it forward.
Transparency, accountability, and justice are vital for the Burmese government’s expressed goals of social stability, peace, and democracy. We strongly urge an impartial and credible investigation into the events of March 5 and 10, in cooperation with civil society, one that holds accountable all those involved in the violence, including security forces who applied excessive force.