By Soe Zeya Tun
LETPADAN, Myanmar (Reuters) - Police in Myanmar arrested five students on Friday from among a crowd of about 200 protesters locked in a standoff with security forces barring their entry into the commercial hub of Yangon, a Reuters witness said.
The United States, which in recent years has backed political reforms in Myanmar, expressed concern about the arrests, which follow rising tensions between the government and students who have been protesting for months against an education bill.
Protesters have said the bill curbs academic independence by stifling student unions and putting decisions in the hands of the government rather than universities.
A group of students began marching from the central city of Mandalay more than a month ago, but police stopped their progress in Letpadan, about 140 km (87 miles) northwest of Yangon, and blockaded them behind vehicles and barriers.
The government has barred the protesters from entering Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and the site of numerous student-led protests, including those in 1988 that sparked a pro-democracy movement that spread throughout the military-ruled country.
On Thursday, police and plain-clothes vigilantes detained eight people who had gathered in downtown Yangon to show solidarity with the Letpadan protesters. Some were beaten with batons, witnesses said.
Police on Friday arrested five students who broke off from the larger protest to march through Letpadan, shouting accusations that police had used violence against the protesters, a Reuters witness said.
"Let us go to Yangon!" the protesters shouted before being arrested at about 9:45 a.m. local time, he added, but the situation remained calm at the larger protest site.
Authorities released those detained in Yangon the previous day, said Ma Mee Mee, a member of the ’88 Generation, a group of activists who led the 1988 protests.She said Nilar Thein, a group member held on Thursday, was recovering from injuries suffered in the crackdown, when men using armbands emblazoned with the word "duty" in Burmese bundled protesters into police vehicles.
A Myanmar law dating from the British colonial period allows authorities to make use of a civilian force to break up unauthorised protests.
The military, which ruled the country for 49 years until ceding power to a semi-civilian government in 2011, used the strategy often. Thursday was the first time the reformist government had used a civilian vigilante force, according to Yan Myo Thien, an independent analyst and former member of the ’88 Generation. "Who gave the order to use such forces? Do they have such forces formed secretly? They need to explain it to the people openly," he said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department expressed concern about reports of the arrests, and that in some cases, force had been used against peaceful protesters.
"Such actions are not in keeping with Burma’s (Myanmar's) efforts to transition to full democracy," Marie Harf told a regular news briefing. "We respect the right of protesters to assemble peacefully. This is obviously an important part of any democratic society," she said.
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in YANGON and Dabvid Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Writing by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)