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 arrests follow rising tension between the government and students protesting for months against an education bill.
Protesters say 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 them in Letpadan, 140 km (90 miles) from Yangon, and blockaded them behind vehicles and barriers.
The government has barred them from 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., 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 unauthorized protests.
The military, which ruled the country for 49 years until ceding power to a semi-civilian government in 2011, often used the strategy.
Thursday was the first time the reformist government had used a civilian vigilante force, said 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.
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in YANGON; Writing by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)