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Myanmar cracks down on education protest at Yangon pagoda

    Men hired for the crackdown wearing red armband reading "Duty" try to drag student protesters opposing a new education law in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday, March 5, 2015. Police cracked down on students and other activists opposing Myanmar's new education law, charging protesters with batons and dragging them into trucks at the landmark Sule Pagoda in the heart of the old capital, Yangon. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

YANGON, Myanmar >> Police cracked down on students and other activists opposing Myanmar’s new education law Thursday, charging protesters with batons and dragging them into trucks at a landmark pagoda in the heart of the old capital.

Several demonstrators were slightly injured and at least 15 were arrested, witnesses and an activist said.

The protest in front of the Sule Pagoda in Yangon drew around 30 people, including prominent activist Nilar Thein and other student leaders. They were calling on the government to amend an education law they say restricts academic freedom.

Minutes after telling the group to disperse, baton-wielding police and thuggish men hired to carry out the crackdown started chasing down protesters.

Since Myanmar started moving from a half-century of brutal military rule toward democracy four years ago, the government has found itself grappling with the consequences of newfound freedoms of expression. Many of the early reforms that marked President Thein Sein early days in office have stalled or started rolling back, with particular sensitivities shown toward public rallies and criticism in the press.

Late Wednesday, police detained more than a dozen workers protesting for higher wages and better working conditions at factories in two industrial zones just outside Yangon. Hundreds of people have been arrested in the last four years, many of them farmers speaking out against land grabs by the rich and powerful.

In recent days, the government warned it would “take action” if student protesters who were stopped at a monastery in Letpadan tried marching to Yangon, 140 kilometers (95 miles) to the south.

The groups at Letpadan and at Sule Pagoda have similar aim: They want the government to scrap a law passed by parliament in September that puts all decisions about education policy and curriculum in the hands of a group largely made up of government ministers. Students say the law undermines the autonomy of universities, which are still struggling to recover after clampdowns on academic independence and freedom during the junta’s rule.

A prominent activist Kyaw Min Yu from the 88 Generation Open Society confirmed that at least a dozen people, including his wife, Nilar Thein, were arrested in Thursday’s crackdown. The couple were both former political prisoners during the days of dictatorship.

“Those detained are taken to an interrogation center and we are waiting for the news,” Kyaw Min Yu said.

“Authorities are using the old technique by needlessly cracking down the peaceful protesters,” he said.

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