Myanmar student protesters given hours to disperse

LETPADAN, Myanmar - Student protesters calling for education reform said Tuesday that riot police have ordered them to disperse within hours after surrounding them near a monastery in central Myanmar.

Some 300 young activists - many sporting bandanas with the fighting peacock symbol of student protest - remained encircled by police armed with sticks who have trapped them outside a monastery compound in the town of Letpadan since Monday.

Authorities have vowed to halt the activists' planned march to the nation's main city Yangon, some 130 kilometres (80 miles) further south and the scene of previous major student-led demonstrations.

Their protest is illegal in Myanmar, where almost half a century of military rule ended only in 2011.

The group has been given a deadline of 4pm local time (5.30am Singapore time) to call off their protest, according to student leader Min Thwe Thit.

"We will not do it so maybe they will crack down," he told AFP.

He added that the students had asked the home affairs ministry for permission to continue their march and to play protest songs and wave their flag.

"The police have been ordered to strike us if we push. But we won't push. We will sit here until they agree our demands," he said.

Students have rallied for months over a controversial education bill that they say is undemocratic. They have collected support from ordinary people and monks in their march, which began in the central city of Mandalay in January.

They are calling for changes including decentralising the education system, giving students the right to form unions and teaching in ethnic minority languages.

Myanmar's government has offered talks and parliament is currently considering potential changes to the legislation.

But authorities have warned the protesters against trying to hold rallies in Yangon.

Student activism is a potent political force in Myanmar with young campaigners at the forefront of several major uprisings, including a mass 1988 demonstration that was ended by a bloody military assault under the former junta.

The student group has been camped at the monastery since suspending its march last week after negotiations with the government.

The rallies, which initially began in November before flaring again this year, have so far taken place without permission in the country, where illegal protests are often met with arrests.

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has undertaken a wide range of reforms since replacing military rule in 2011, ending the country's decades of isolation.

But rights groups and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have raised concerns that reforms are stalling.