The state-sponsored violence that took place against student demonstrators in Burma this month is a shocking reminder that the country is just beginning its transition to democracy and still has a very long way to go.
Last week, uniformed police officers in Burma attacked an ambulance in the midst of a violent attempt to break up a student demonstration. The attack occurred on the second day of police violence against peaceful student protests, which have been ongoing since last year.
The supervisor of the medics who had been in the ambulance at the time of the attack told Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) that students trying to escape from police officers jumped into the back of the ambulance and closed the door. Police officers responded by forcing the door open, dragging the students out, and beating them with rubber batons. The medics in the ambulance then pulled the students back inside and locked the door. Police proceeded to attack the ambulance with batons, breaking a side mirror and denting the side and front panels of the vehicle. Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS) – the Rangoon-based nonprofit operating the ambulance – took five students suffering head wounds and broken bones to the hospital. They also evacuated one police officer who had heat exhaustion.
The students were marching from Mandalay to Rangoon to protest a national education law that they believe will curb rights to establish student and teacher unions and will create a more centralized and rigid education system. Demonstrations originally began in November 2014, but in February of this year the students started marching from several universities in central Burma south towards Rangoon. The government issued statements claiming that the students’ safety could not be guaranteed, despite the fact that the government is obligated to ensure that students are protected when they engage in peaceful protests.
About 100 student protesters stopped in Latpadang, Bago Division, when the government agreed to meet with student leaders. When these talked failed, however, and the students tried to resume their march, some 300 police officers blocked them. The standoff continued for several days until March 10, when police officers and plainclothes agitators wearing red armbands attacked students who had sought refuge in homes and a monastery. Police officers pulled students out of these shelters and arrested more than 100 of them under a peaceful assembly law that is often used to jail political activists.
The Burmese government’s passing of a draconian education law, its threats to peaceful student protesters, its employment of hired instigators, and the subsequent use of force against a peaceful gathering – including attacks on medical workers evacuating the injured – are reminiscent of the dictatorship that once ruled the country, indicating that similar repressive elements are still embedded in the current governmental structure.
In recent years, we have seen attacks against health workers around the world, including in Syria, Ukraine, and Gaza, among others. We expect better governance from a country that is supposed to be undergoing a democratic transformation.
The international community must maintain pressure on the Burmese government to respect human rights in the country by both supporting parts of the government that promote these values and condemning those that continue to violate human rights.
It is promising that the Burmese government has said that it will investigate the police's use of force in breaking up the protest. We are awaiting the results of that investigation, which we hope will be independent and transparent.