The top official in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state on Thursday justified as legal action a bloody police crackdown on peaceful protesters demonstrating against a newly inaugurated statue of the country’s independence hero General Aung San in the state capital Loikaw.
Chief Minister L Paung Sho said police upheld due process in handling the rally on Tuesday during which they fired bullets and a water cannon at some of the 5,000 ethnic Karenni protesters, injuring 21 of them.
“The police followed their procedures,” he told RFA's Myanmar Service. “For instance, they marked three lines that [the protesters] should not cross, but they crossed the first line, then the second, and eventually the third one, leading to the unwanted incident. I feel sorry about that.”
“As a chief minister I have nothing to say about the police actions which were in line with standard procedures, but I feel sorry about them,” he said.
Police fired on the protesters who demanded that that officials remove or relocate the gold-colored statue from a public park.
Many accuse the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party of pushing Aung San monuments in ethnic minority states where residents would prefer having statues of their own heroes, rather than one of Aung San, who came from the majority Bamar ethnic group that dominates the country.
The demonstrators also called for L Paung Sho and the state’s minister of planning and finance to resign, arguing that they are responsible for the discontent.
‘Beyond the legal boundary’
Tuesday’s protest follows other demonstrations by young Karennis last week outside the state headquarters of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Loikaw.
Fifty-five people who led the rallies have been arrested and charged with unlawful assembly under Myanmar's Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, and with incitement and defamation under the country’s Penal Code.
Maw Moe Myar, a protest leader and member of the Union of Karenni State Youth (UKSY), said that demonstrators had submitted a letter to local authorities about the peaceful rally 48 hours before holding it in accordance with the law.
“But ordering the police to shoot went beyond the legal boundary,” he said. “Such a practice has no room in a democratic system, but only in authoritarian states.”
Kyaw Htin Aung, leader of a technical group that supports the UKSY, said that police acted unlawfully when they fired upon the protesters.
He now faces a charge under Section 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires that demonstrators get advance permission from authorities for public rallies.
“The unlawful and forced actions of the authorities led to the current situation, and then the protesters were accused of breaking the law,” he said.
The state government practiced a legal double standard in dealing with the demonstrations, he said.
“Those demonstrators who opposed the statue will face charges, but the actions of those who demonstrated in support of the local government’s actions are ignored,” Kyaw Htin Aung said, referring to other locals who publicly rallied in support of the decision to erect the statue.
“So the Kayah state government led by the chief minister is responsible for the crackdown,” he added.
Politically motivated protests?
The Kayah state government said local police and township administration officials had been told to drop the charges, but officials at the Loikaw Township Court said they have not received any formal instructions as of today when the detained activists were taken there.
The next hearing for those arrested and charged will be on Feb. 20.
L Paung Sho told RFA that the local government would not handle the cases directly, but instead form a committee to negotiate with the parties involved to have the charges against the protesters dropped.
He also said officials would not intervene in the talks which the committee has already called for and has set a Friday deadline for the parties to respond.
The chief minister also suggested that the rallies were politically motivated, but added that he did not want to reveal which political forces were behind them.
The main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) on Thursday denounced the local government’s actions against the protesters and said it would assist those who led the rallies, though the activists tuned down the offer.
Dee Di, a member of the negotiation committee, pointed out that citizens have marked the anniversary of the birth of Aung San on Feb. 13 during crackdowns and arrests in the past by posting leaflets and distributing poems about the general.
“I don’t know which information the authorities are using to say that the actions of the younger generation are politically motivated,” he said. “The political objective of our younger generation is the national equality that General Aung San had promised. We cannot accept any politics that won’t bring national equality.”
Aung San, father of Myanmar’s current de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, played a key role in freeing Myanmar from British colonial rule 70 years ago and in signing a pact with ethnic minority leaders to grant their groups ethnic autonomy within the independent nation.
But decades of civil war have prevented successive governments from forming a federal democratic union.
Since coming to power in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi has spearheaded the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, a reincarnation of the peace negotiations with Myanmar’s ethnic groups that were started by her father to end fighting between ethnic armed groups and the government military.
Reported by Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.