YANGON - Myanmar authorities defended a crackdown on a Yangon rally, which saw police and men in civilian clothes beat unarmed protesters, as security forces made fresh arrests on Friday.
In a defiant statement as authorities launched a third day of action against several demonstrations, the state-run Mirror newspaper said police acted legitimately to disperse a rally on Thursday in the heart of Yangon.
Several people were wounded in the incident and eight briefly detained.
"The authorities repeatedly asked the people to disperse. But because the protesters fought back against the authorities, there was a crackdown and some protesters were detained," the report said.
Activists have insisted it was a peaceful protest.
Their rally in Yangon, held in solidarity with a rolling student demonstration calling for education reform, comes as several groups of workers also staged strikes over pay.
In the latest arrests early Friday, authorities in the central town of Letpadan detained five student protesters, according to activists.
"Some students sneaked out through police barriers and joined with the people who came to support our strike," student leader Min Thway Thit told AFP, adding that the situation had since calmed.
Observers fear democratic reforms in Myanmar, which is gradually emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, are stalling in the run-up to a breakthrough general election slated for the end of this year.
The latest crackdown has deepened concerns that authorities have not lost the repressive reflex forged during the junta era.
President's office director Zaw Htay sparked an angry online reaction after a post on his personal Facebook page suggested using deputised civilians against protesters was legal under Myanmar's penal code.
"Law.. of the Thugs, by the Thugs, for the Thugs," said one comment on Facebook responding to the post, which has since been deleted.
The eight activists arrested in the Yangon protest were released early Friday without charge, one of them told AFP.
"What happened yesterday was completely unacceptable," said Nilar Thein, a leader of 88 Generation students group who was released on Friday.
"The students have been protesting peacefully," she added.
Students have rallied for months against an education law, demanding changes to the legislation to decentralise the school system, teach in ethnic languages, and allow the formation of student unions.
A few hundred students remain surrounded by riot police in Letpadan after refusing to give up their plans to march to Yangon, some 130 kilometres (80 miles) further south.
Student activism is a potent political force in Myanmar with young campaigners at the forefront of several major uprisings, including a huge 1988 demonstration that prompted a bloody military assault under the former junta.
The 88 Generation is made up largely of student activists from that mass protest, which also saw the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition.
Myanmar state media on Friday also reported that police in Yangon had charged 14 garment workers after they were arrested on Wednesday after blocking roads to the commercial hub of Yangon in a protest over wages.
They face up to two years in prison if convicted under the Rioting Act, according to a report in the English language Global New Light of Myanmar.