Up to 20 Burmese student activists arrested on Friday were freed one day later, after an avalanche of criticism from human rights groups.
The student leaders were detained in Rangoon, Mandalay, Lashio and Shwebo as they were planning to hold ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of a deadly 1962 army attack on Rangoon University.
Among those detained was the secretary of the All Burma Students Union, 23-year-old Phyo Phyo Aung, who had been released as a political prisoner last year.
Some prominent student activists said the arrests showed confusion and misunderstanding on the part of some officials in the current government, who still distrust and fear student activist groups.
Dozens of students died during a 1962 army attack on the Student Union building at Rangoon University.
A delegation from Asean's Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, (AIPMC) currently visiting Burma, called the arrests a repressive measure which gave the impression that “the old ways are still in effect” despite recent democratic changes.
“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.”
Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), said authorities were nervous every year over celebrations to commemorate the 1962 tragedy. The authorities should have “more trust” in the new generation of political activists, he said.
The new generation of Burmese activists is trying to cooperate with the government, he said, and did not have any intention to conduct a demonstration.
On Saturday up to 300 people marked the anniversary despite the arrests and the presence of plainclothes police.
Debbie Stothard, a spokesperson for rights group, the Alternative Asean Network, said the arrests raised doubts sincerity toward democratic reforms.
“If the country was really moving towards reform people shouldn’t be rounded up on the eve of any anniversary of importance,” she said. “We hope that this serves as a wake-up call to part of the international community that has been euphoric and over optimistic about the pace of reform and the commitment to reform in Burma. There’s no point dismantling sanctions when the authorities are clearly not in a hurry to move forward to greater freedom.”
The detentions came just days after authorities freed more than 20 political prisoners.