Since 10 March 2015, the Burmese government has detained 70 students and their supporters in Tharawaddy Prison. Out of the 127 students arrested and detained, 70 are still being held in detention. These arrests were part of a crackdown to quash the student protest march against the National Education Law that was passed on 30 September 2014. Out of the students arrested, 27 were released without charge and 30 students were released on bail. The case against students will be heard tomorrow at the Letpadan Township court.
The government has leveled the accusation that many of the students in detention are, in fact, not students since they are not attending regular university. The students however alleged that they are students at the Open University undertaking distance education.
In Burma 60% or more students attended college through the University of Distance Education constituted under the Ministry of Education. This is because many students cannot afford full time courses, as they are poor. Poverty also forces students from far-flung areas of Burma to rely on distance education because they cannot afford to stay in towns where educational institutions are located. Many youths also resort to distance education as this allows them to keep a day job to supplement their family income.
By labeling students undergoing distance education as non-students, the government is trying to create an impression that the student protest was organised by non-students, motivated by political agents against the government. In fact, if the government were to argue that distance education is not education this would imply that 60% or more of Burmese youth are uneducated or not attending college.
Burmese government is not new to fabricating charges and manipulating records to detain persons in custody and subdue all forms of protest against the government. The façade, of what is known as the judicial process in Burma, is often merely the rubber-stamping of military policies rolled out as government action. The judge in question might well have been instructed on how long the students must be detained by the government. Such pre-trial detention could be for a long period and in inhuman conditions.
The new law enacted by the government affects day scholars as well as students undertaking studies under the distance education program. The AHRC has already called upon the government of Burma to recognise and respect the constitutional rights of every Burmese, under Article 354 of the Burmese Constitution, upholding their freedom of expression and opinion exercised through peaceful assembly. The students who were brutally attacked and later arrested, of which 70 are remain in detention, were only exercising their constitutional rights. The students did not resorted to any form of violence during the protest, yet the government chose to use brute force when undertaking the arrests.
It is the right of the students who are now under detention to seek and obtain bail. Even if the government may claim that those under detention are not students, these individuals were only participating in peaceful protest, which is the right of every Burmese citizen. So, whether those in detention now are students or not, it is the responsibly of the court to recognise their constitutional rights and, at the very least, release them on bail.
Any further detention of the students will curtail their prospect of further education, for which they have worked hard; it will destroy their future. Perhaps, this is what the government wishes for those that it has kept under detention.
The AHRC strongly condemns the government actions and calls upon the government of Burma to release the students unconditionally. The AHRC also calls upon the international community to work closely with the government of Burma and ensure that the students are released. The AHRC further urges the governments to withdraw sections of the National Education Law against which the students have been protesting.