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Myanmar activists urge release of student leaders

YANGON -- Activists on Saturday called for the immediate release of student leaders detained in Myanmar's largest crackdown on dissent since the end of outright military rule last year.

At least 20 people were detained ahead of Saturday's commemoration of a brutal 1962 suppression of a student movement, sparking fears authorities had taken a backward step from tentative reforms which have seen the international community ease some sanctions on the formerly army-ruled nation.

Neither the detentions, nor the presence of plain clothes police, deterred around 300 people from gathering in Yangon to remember the bloody blitz on students protesting against military rule in Yangon University some five decades ago.

“We call for the release of those arrested students immediately. This kind of arrest can harm the dignity of the government. Arrest without reason can also harm national reconciliation,” said a young student leader Kyaw Ko Ko.

“We also have to accuse the government of trying to go backward.”

Two government officials confirmed that students had been held ahead of the event, without providing exact numbers.

“The government is worried ... by the students holding this kind of ceremony. They took the precaution of detaining the prominent ones. They can be released in coming days,” one government official in Yangon said.

The detentions raise questions about the strength of Myanmar's reforms since it dropped outright military rule last year in favour of a quasi-civilian government led by reformist president Thein Sein.

Urging the “immediate release” of the students, Mie Mie, a veteran of the 88 Generation Students Group, which played a key part in a 1988 uprising against the former junta, branded the move “an obstacle on the way to democracy.”

But analysts expressed caution over a rush to judge the creeping reforms from the wave of detentions, more so in the wake of deadly communal violence in western Myanmar which has left the country — and its leaders — on edge.

“With the country opening up, people are trying to test the limits of freedom. I think that is what has happened,” said Aung Naing Oo of the Bangkok-based Vahu Development Institute. “It (the detentions) is just a precaution. I don't know the whole story but I think there will be negotiation,” he said, adding that the government is unlikely to risk damaging fragile international relationships with “mass arrests.”

Four student leaders were held in Yangon and others were taken in for questioning by police in three other locations across the country, according to activists.

Saturday's anniversary remembers the bloody 1962 crackdown on students protesting against military rule in Yangon University.

The day after the deadly army suppression, the student union building was destroyed with dynamite by the junta while some injured students were still hiding inside.

Ceremonies to remember the event were low key under the junta for fear of provoking the army, but a bigger event on Saturday — including student leaders past and present — was held at the Generation '88 office.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is due to attend parliament as an elected lawmaker on Monday, has urged caution over Myanmar's reforms and called on the government to release those still in custody from the junta era.

On Tuesday Myanmar included about 20 political prisoners in a jail amnesty.

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