Myanmar police injured 21 ethnic Karenni protesters Tuesday when they used rubber bullets and a water cannon to break up a demonstration in Kayah state capital’s Loikaw over a statue of the father of Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a local protester said.
About 5,000 Karenni marched in three columns during the morning protest, demanding that officials remove or relocate a newly inaugurated gold-colored statue of Myanmar independence hero General Aung San from a public park.
Ethnic Karenni oppose the erection of the statue because Aung San came from the ethnic Bamar majority that dominates the country and because they believe that the current government should focus on equal rights for ethnic minorities.
The protesters also called for the resignation of the eastern state’s chief minister and the minister of planning and finance, who local residents believe are responsible for the crisis.
Police used rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse the protesters, saying they had crossed the barriers, demonstrator Kyaw Htin Aung told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“Police cracked down on one of the columns using water cannons and rubber bullets,” he said. “One person was seriously injured in the face.”
When RFA contacted Loikaw Township Police Chief Win Naing, he refused to comment, saying an official statement would be issued once the situation had settled.
Reuters later reported that about two dozen people rallied in Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon in support of protesters in Loikaw and in opposition to the building of Aung San monuments.
The latest protest follows other demonstrations by young Karennis last week outside the state headquarters of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Loikaw. Dozens were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, incitement, and defamation.
Yanghee Lee, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, condemned the police violence against the Loikaw protesters.
“This is yet another example of the government sidelining the rights of ethnic minorities and failing to truly do what is necessary to unite the country and bring about peace and democracy,” she said in a statement issued Tuesday by the U.N.’s human rights office (OHCHR).
“The government of Myanmar must respect the right of all people to peacefully assemble and express their views about issues that concern them,” she said. “Using disproportionate force against peaceful protesters is entirely unacceptable. The arrests must stop.”
Some charges dropped
At about 3 p.m., eight protest organizers and two journalists from different media outlets were allowed to hold talks with state officials during which the parties reached an agreement that the charges against detained protesters would be dropped, Kyaw Htin Aung said.
A total of 86 protesters have been charged, some of them two or three times they were released on bail but then rejoined demonstrators and were re-arrested, he said.
“They agreed to drop the cases of 55 people,” Kyaw Htin Aung said. “There were also five people who are being charged under Article 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law following a protest in support [of building the statue,] so at least, the demand for dropping the cases was successful.”
Negotiations are still ongoing and are said to include a plan that the committee for erecting the Aung San statue and another committee objecting to it will settle the issue within a month, he added.
In the meantime, the protests will be stopped, and the park where the statue is located will be closed during the discussions, he said.
The local government is also required not to intervene in the negotiations and to respect the outcome of the talks, Kyaw Htin Aung said.
“We want everyone to enter into negotiations whenever a conflict occurs,” said NLD party spokesman Myo Nyunt.
“But what really happened needs to be known,” he added. “A group of people staged a protest against the statue. Likewise, a group of people protested in support of the statue, so we have to see who’s reflecting the people’s desire.”
Officials must also determine what led to use of force during the crackdown on protesters, Myo Nyunt said.
“We can’t make comments on only the information we have at hand,” he said.
Kayah state officials, including Chief Minister L Paung Sho, were unavailable for comment.
Union Day speech
The latest protest in Loikaw occurred on Union Day, a public holiday commemorating the passage of the Panglong Agreement in 1947, which gave the country full independence from Britain after more than 100 years of colonial rule.
General Aung San, affectionately known as Bogyoke (General) in Burmese, led the effort to sign the agreement with Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minority leaders as the first step towards the creation of a federal union for all ethnic groups in Myanmar, though the goal has yet to be realized.
In a speech commemorating the holiday, President Win Myint said that misconceptions had led to decades of civil war between government forces and ethnic armies, and that the government would make efforts to hold peace talks with ethnic armed organizations that have and have not signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA).
“[M]isunderstandings, mistrust, and doubt crept in among the ethic people, leading to 70 years of armed conflicts, and the fire of armed conflicts has not yet ceased,” he said at a ceremony in Naypyidaw. “Only the united strength of the ethnic people and their commitment can help preserve and perpetuate independence and sovereignty and prevent the disintegration of the Union.”
Win Myint’s comments about Aung San during his speech reflect the reverence and esteem in which the general, who was assassinated in July 1947, is held by contemporary leaders.
“Our national leader Bogyoke Aung San and ethnic leaders rebuilt the unity of all national races and sacrificed their lives to regain the independence that we had lost,” he said.
“General Aung San and ethnic leaders held the Panglong Conference as part of efforts for regaining independence for the hilly regions without separating them from the mainland.”
Under the current NLD government, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has spearheaded a sporadic series of peace talks known as the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, or the Union Peace Conference, to bring warring factions to the negotiating table, permanently end the hostilities, and create a federal democratic union.
So far, the 10 ethnic armed groups that have signed the NCA and other stakeholders in the peace process have agreed to 51 basic principles for a democratic federal union, but they remain at odds over security issues.
In a bid to give the peace process a boost, Myanmar’s military declared a temporary unilateral cease-fire in five of its command zones, except for troubled Rakhine state in the country’s west, where fighting between its soldiers and the ethnic Arakan Army has intensified in recent months.
The cease-fire expires on April 30.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin and other reporters for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.