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Myanmar prevents students from marching against academic law

March 2, 2015

LETPADAN, Myanmar (AP) — Truckloads of police on Monday prevented hundreds of students from continuing their march to Myanmar’s biggest city to protest a new law that they say curbs academic freedom.

Tensions have been building since the rally began in the country’s second-largest city of Mandalay just over a month ago, with public sympathy growing for the demonstrators, who have repeatedly defied threats by authorities to turn back or face the consequences.

Around 200 students staying at a monastery in the town of Letpadan, 145 kilometers (90 miles) north of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and its former capital, had planned to continue their march.

But they woke up Monday morning to find more than a dozen police vehicles, including a water cannon truck, parked outside the building.

After agreeing to delay their plans, they were joined by another large group of students, who had pushed their way through baton-wielding police, shouting “Let us go! Let us go!”

Myanmar started moving from a half-century of military rule toward democracy in 2011, but critics say the reforms that marked President Thein Sein’s early days in office have either stalled or started retreating.

The new education law, passed by parliament in September, puts all decisions about policy and curriculum in the hands of a body made up largely of government ministers. It bans students from forming unions and ignores calls for local languages to be used in instruction in ethnic states.

Students want the law scrapped, saying it undermines the autonomy of universities, which are still struggling to recover after clampdowns on academic independence and freedom during the days of dictatorship.

The threat of an expanded protest is sensitive in Myanmar, in part because students were at the forefront of pro-democracy protests in 1988 that were crushed by a bloody military crackdown.

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