One of the lawyers representing the students arrested in Letpadan that they could each be charged on five counts including unlawful assembly and rioting that could see them jailed for up to 9.5 years.
U Kyaw Htay, one of the lawyers, offered the warning to the media as 69 students and activists detained in Thayawaddy Prison appeared at the Letpadan Township Court on March 25.
A full hearing was not held on the day as the court reportedly claimed they were seeking
four student leaders —Ko Kyaw Ko Ko, Ko Ye Yint Kyaw, Ko Nandar Sit Aung and Ko Myat Thu —have “escaped,” according to lawyers from Myanmar Lawyers’ Network, who has been helping the students, referring to students who have yet to be apprehended.
Lawyer U Kyi Myint from the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network said: “Today, the authorities announced that the 69 people would be charged under five articles. Then they told the students and activists they can hire lawyers. Then they allowed the parents of the students to meet with their children.”
Angry relatives gathered outside the court to show support for the activists, arrested after a police crackdown on the student-led protest, aware they could face jail for nearly a decade.
The demonstrators were brought to a court hearing in the central town of Letpadan two weeks after baton-wielding police violently quelled their rally for education reform in scenes that sparked fears of a return to junta-era repression.
A group of 11 people were released from custody late on March 25, mainly older supporters of the student activists. Most still face charges but were freed after stumping up US$2,000 [K2 million] bail.
Ma Nwe Lay Nge, 23, said her stint behind bars had done little to dampen her resolve to continue her protests.
"When I saw the brothers and sisters here, my spirit came back to me again. I have to keep fighting," she told AFP.
Relatives outside the courtroom - where police opened their case against the protesters - sang songs, cheered loudly and shook their fists in support of the activists as they were led in pairs into the building.
Others broke down in tears and shouted "It's not fair!"
Around 127 demonstrators were arrested after the March 10 rally, with most of them detained in nearby Tharrawaddy prison and allowed only fleeting contact with loved ones.
On March 25 the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said 19 men and one woman had been "turned over to their parents and relatives" the previous day.
"The authorities have so far released 28 students and two reporters arrested in the crackdown after determining their roles in the protests," it said.
Before the hearing worried relatives claimed that activists had been mistreated in prison and that they knew little about the legal action they face.
"My daughter still doesn't know what kind of charges have been pressed against them. They haven't been told anything clearly yet," said U Ne Win, adding that his daughter Phyo Phyo Aung was beaten around the head "about six times" after being arrested.
Myanmar authorities were unavailable for comment.
Lawyer U San Tun Aung - among the crowd of relatives, journalists and activists gathered outside Tharrawaddy prison earlier Wednesday - said around 45 barristers from Mandalay and Yangon had offered to represent the detainees.
"Arresting them is like destroying democracy. That is why we lawyers have to represent them," he said.
Students have long been at the forefront of political action in the nation's turbulent history, leading mass protests in 1988 which saw the rise of democracy campaigner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party but which were brutally quashed by the military.
Additional reporting from AFP