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Myanmar police to charge 17 anti-war protesters

(Reuters) – Myanmar police said on Monday they would charge 17 organizers of an anti-war protest on the weekend that degenerated into scuffles and fistfights, and raised new concern about freedom of speech.

The protest was organized on Saturday in the main city of Yangon as a show of support by about 300 people for victims of fighting between government forces and ethnic minority guerrillas in Kachin state in northern Myanmar.

Police were seeking to charge the young activists for “disturbing the public” and “holding a protest without permission”, senior police officer Thein Win told Reuters.

The Saturday scuffles between baton-wielding police and protesters sparked an outcry among activists and lawmakers over what they see as risks for free expression under the government of de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available for comment. Myanmar police spokesman Myo Thu Soe declined to comment.

A growing anti-war youth movement, which in recent months has spread to various parts of the country, has exposed frustration with Suu Kyi’s struggle to fulfill her promise to end decades of war by autonomy-seeking ethnic minority guerrillas in lawless border lands.

More than 6,000 people have fled their homes since an army offensive against the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic rebel group, and rescue workers say hundreds of villagers are stuck in danger zones.

Fighting has also intensified in other ethnic minority areas.

One of the protesters who was detained and later released was Khin Sandar Tun, 29, a Muslim from the Kaman ethnic group in the violence-torn Rakhine state and one of Myanmar’s most well-known peace and interfaith activists.

“Five of them grabbed my arm and threw me into the truck even though I told them I would come along. I can’t move my arm up, and I’m still in pain,” Khin Sandar Tun who was released on Sunday, told Reuters by telephone.

The embassies of Sweden and Denmark have called on the government to amend the protest legislation which was made more restrictive in March.

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