Hundreds of security officers reportedly surrounded demonstrators in the city of Letpadan Thursday, thereby blocking their marching route to the capital. The activists responded by staging a sit-in, which was violently dispersed by baton attacks at the hands of police. (Photos of security forces wielding batons have already have gone viral on social media.)
The student demonstrations began in November in protest of new legislation that activists say give the government undue authority over the educational system, which is supposed to be autonomous. The bill grants the state the final word on university syllabi, denies students the right to participate in political movements or unions, and mandates in what languages classes must be instructed. Protesters argue that these laws constitute a chilling echo of the country’s notorious half-century of dictatorial rule under a military junta, wherein dissent was eliminated and ethnic minorities suppressed.
Indeed, Thursday’s crackdown on the student movements is all the more disturbing given Myanmar’s brutal past. After a relatively promising post-war era, the country fell under a military junta in 1962. In 1988-1989, student-led pro-democracy protests resulted in the massacre of over 3,000 peaceful demonstrators and ushered in an even darker era under the totalitarian rule of Than Shwe. So ruthless was his regime that Foreign Policy Magazine once called him the third worst dictator in the world, for having “decimated the opposition with arrests and detentions, denied humanitarian aid to his people after 2008’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, and thrived off a black market economy of natural gas exports.”
And yet, his resignation in 2011 in favor of his surprisingly reform-minded protege Thein Sein surprised the international community with its promise of real change. But for many, that change has been depressingly slow to come. Religious and ethnic persecution are common, as well as sectarian violence and suppression of dissent. In recent months, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. both issued statements condemning the situation in Myanmar as headed in the wrong direction. The Myanmar military — which still controls most of the parliament — blasted the organizations for meddling in domestic affairs.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands have been displaced in ongoing ethnic conflicts — in 2012, over 100,000 Muslims were forcibly relocated in an ethnic cleaning campaign — and many have sought refuge in China. While Beijing has repeatedly called for peace on its shared border, it has also been accused of stoking tensions and facilitating abuses.
Like the ongoing student protests, this ethnic conflict is at heart a fight for plurality in Myanmar, which is a necessary ingredient for a successful democracy. Experts say the country boasts over 100 ethnic groups and several languages — a heritage tragically steamrolled during the junta years. Four years after a transition of power marked by intense optimism, observers are watching Myanmar all the while holding their breath.