While Myanmar trumpets its march towards reform and the international community warms to the idea of dropping sanctions, the country’s student leaders say that much remains the same as it was under the ruling generals, with arbitrary arrests and surveillance still common practice. As evidence for this assertion, more than 20 student activists from Yangon, Mandalay, Shwebo and Lashio were detained by police last Friday night, while they were preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a military crackdown on students in Yangon. They were freed on Saturday after undergoing five hours of interrogation, with their inquisitors mainly wanting to know why they had chosen to stage the event. On July 8, 1962, Myanmar's armed forces blew up the student union of Rangoon University during a crackdown on student protesters demonstrating a day earlier over a military coup that brought General Ne Win to power in March of that year. Dozens of students are believed to have been killed in the crackdown. “Our aim was to bring the reality of that incident in 1962 to a new generation and to honor the students who sacrificed their lives,” said Phyo Phyo Aung, secretary of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, who was one of the detained. “We were arrested because we were told the gathering was unlawful. But the government uses the law at will, to control or oppress opponents,” she said. “In order to have rule of law in the country, the unjust laws must be abolished and new laws to protect the right of each citizen must be introduced.” Sithu Maung, vice-president of the Federation, added: “They told us the arrests were intended to protect our dignity and to ease public anxiety. But we doubt that rule of law exists in our country as our rights are violated and our lives are not safe.” Rights groups and political analysts have voiced concerns about the detentions, with the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus calling them an “act of oppression” which left the impression that “the old ways are still in effect.” Phyo Phyo Aung fully endorsed that observation. “Oppression is still going on in the country and it’s time to ask whether the country really is moving towards democracy,” she said. Although she described herself as cautiously optimistic about the future of Myanmar, she also said: “We don’t fully trust the government because they just change the uniform. It will take time to transform attitudes.” Another of the detainees, D. Nyein Lin, pointed out that there is still no officially formed students' union. “Freedom of assembly and expression is still lacking in the country, even though the constitution talks about it,” he said. “Students and activists still face limitations and hindrances all through the country and it shouldn’t be happening. If the government is genuine about wanting reform, they should allow the establishment of an official students' union instead of oppressing students’ movements. Only then will the young generation play a major role in building the nation.”
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