YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar authorities released 20 student leaders detained during the 50th anniversary of an army crackdown on Saturday, a prominent activist said after a series of police swoops that raised doubts about the government’s reformist credentials.
The activists were picked up in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar’s two largest cities, Lashio and Shwebo on Friday night and taken to undisclosed locations. They were freed late on Saturday, said former political prisoner Phyo Phyo Aung, who was among those held.
Phyo Phyo Aung said she and three other activists from the All Burma Students Union were questioned at a building in Yangon that was once an office of the Home Ministry, because their organisation had been deemed illegal.
“Police officials told us that they just wanted to question us in connection with our plans to commemorate the anniversary,” she told Reuters, referring to the army’s suppression of protests in 1962 when dozens of students were killed and a university building blown up.
The military seized power in 1962 and ruled the country under various guises until March last year.
The United States and European Union have suspended some sanctions in recent months in response to reforms by the new quasi-civilian government, which include moves to liberalise the economy, the release of more than 600 political prisoners and the introduction of laws allowing demonstrations.
However, despite government claims that the reforms are “irreversible”, the arrest and detention of dissidents still goes on, albeit not as often, which rights groups say proves the retired generals still in power are not fully committed to promises they have made.
The arrests could dent the government’s positive image, said the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC), a group of southeast Asian lawmakers providing support to Myanmar’s democratic transition and currently visiting the country.
“This act of oppression has given us the impression that the old ways of practice are still in effect, despite all the positivity for change that we have been hearing,” Cambodian lawmaker Son Chhay, AIPMC’s vice president, said in a statement.
“If they are even going to arrest people before any crime has taken place, this shows that they continue to use fear and intimidation to repress.”
Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Janet Lawrence