Student protesters take pictures of themselves in front of a police line in Letpadan, Burma, on March 10, 2015

(New York) – The Burmese police should end their crackdown on student protests and investigate officers responsible for the use of excessive force against protesters.

On March 10, 2015, police backed by local plainclothes police auxiliaries with batons violently dispersed an estimated 200 student demonstrators near the town of Letpadan in Pegu region, north of the commercial capital, Rangoon. The media reported that violence broke out between the students and police involving student demonstrators who attempted to breach a police barricade blocking their way towards Rangoon. Police arrested a large number of students, Buddhist monks, and local residents deemed to be supporting the students.

“The savage beating of students by police and plainclothes thugs marks an ugly return to the street violence of military rule,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to rein in abusive police, disband unaccountable auxiliaries, and permit peaceful demonstrations.”

The manner in which the police cracked down on student demonstrators, and use of local police auxiliaries to search for and apprehend students suggests a disturbing return to past unlawful tactics of Burma’s military governments, Human Rights Watch said.

The protests arose after months of escalating tensions between student unions across the country and the Ministry of Education over a draft national education bill. Student leaders contend that students were insufficiently consulted about the content of the bill and that officials have disregarded their suggestions for a more equitable and inclusive education system. Despite efforts by some government officials to mediate, the lack of a resolution of the disagreements led a number of student groups throughout Burma to stage marches from regional centers towards Rangoon.

During the first week of March, police stopped the Letpadan group from advancing further south towards Rangoon. However, authorities gave students assurances that on March 10 at 11a.m. they would be permitted to proceed to Rangoon in small groups. The media reported that students were granted passage from the area and that they believe police and auxiliaries lay in wait for them as they traveled south towards Rangoon where most of the arrests occurred.

The police had recently used unnecessary force against student protesters, Human Rights Watch said. On March 5, police backed by alleged members of the infamous Swan Arr Shin (“Masters of Force”) auxiliary, many wearing red armbands stenciled with the Burmese word for “duty,” violently assaulted students and activists who had assembled outside Rangoon’s city hall to express solidarity with the Letpadan student group. Police arrested eight people, including students and members of the prominent 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group of former political prisoners. All were freed early next morning, but were informed by police that they could face charges for violating the Peaceful Assembly Law. The use of police auxiliaries to disperse demonstrators last occurred during the violent crackdown on a Buddhist monk-led protest in Rangoon in 2007.

The authorities have used Burma’s seriously flawed Peaceful Assembly Law, which requires local government approval for any gathering, to intimidate student protests, many of which occur without prior approval.

Human Rights Watch said the government should investigate and prosecute as appropriate anyone responsible for the excessive use of force. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides that officials acting in a law enforcement capacity “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force.” Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, security forces shall “[e]xercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved.”

The Burmese police force has long been implicated in serious human rights violations and the failure to protect populations at risk. The 2012 violence in Arakan State against the Rohingya Muslim community displaced over 130,000 mostly Rohingya residents. During anti-Muslim violence throughout Burma since then, the police have not effectively intervened and at times have actively participated in the violence. In 2013, the European Union funded a project to assist in the transformation of the Burmese police to ensure more rights-respecting crowd control and community policing.

“The European Union and others should roundly condemn this police violence and recalibrate their support for the Burmese government if it fails to protect the right to peaceful protest,” Adams said. “Burma’s reforms are looking increasingly shaky day by day.”