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US condemns use of force after police crackdown on Myanmar protesters

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WASHINGTON — U.S. condemnation Tuesday of the use of force by baton-wielding Myanmar police against students protesting for academic freedom comes as international optimism over the former pariah nation's democratic transition withers in a crucial election year.

Authorities' handling of prolonged protests over new education law have stirred unwelcome reminders of past days of authoritarian rule when Western nations kept the Southeast Asian nation's government at arm's length.

"Freedom of assembly is an important component of any democratic society. We condemn the use of force taken against peaceful protesters," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.

She voiced deep concern over arrests and violence against journalists covering the unrest the town of Letpadan, where hundreds of riot police pummeled protesters and arrested more than 120 people. Police also used force to disperse protesters in the main city of Yangon, 90 miles to the south.

A European Union delegation that has been training Myanmar's police called for a formal investigation.

No deaths have been reported during the protests, and both the U.S. and EU remain committed to supporting Myanmar's transition. The riot police action is a far cry from the brutal and bloody crackdown that the former military government meted out against student-backed demonstrations for democracy in 1988 and 2007.

But it adds to worries that reforms that have opened up the country also known as Burma have stalled or gone into reverse ahead of elections in the fall — a vote that the Western nations, which rolled back sanctions three years ago, hope will consolidate a historic shift from military to civilian rule.

Phuong Nguyen, a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said callous government treatment of protesters "will seriously hamper the ability of U.S. officials to convince crucial players within Congress that Washington should continue its support for Myanmar's reform process and future development."

Two prominent voices on Myanmar policy, Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley and Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, called the violence "despicable" and said the U.S. should be demanding an immediate end to police attacks.

"Burma's students are simply calling for a policy change, and they should not be treated as enemies," the lawmakers said in a statement.

Students have been politically influential in Myanmar for generations — resisting British colonial rule in the early 20th century, and then domination by the Burmese military.

President Barack Obama alluded to that history during a high-profile speech Saturday marking the 50th anniversary of a police crackdown against civil rights activists in the southern U.S. state of Alabama. Obama spoke of how activists around the world had drawn inspiration from the events in Selma, including young people in Myanmar who "went to prison rather than submit to military rule."

But despite his administration's pride in fostering the opening of Myanmar, where Obama has visited twice as president, the U.S. has struggled to shift the needle in areas of concern like discrimination of Muslims and reforms to a junta-era constitution that enshrines a political role for the military.

Rupert Abbott of Amnesty International said Tuesday's violent police response was a "stark reminder of just how repressive the climate still is for activism in the country."

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