UPDATED at 12:22 P.M. EDT on 2018-07-07
Protesters demonstrating against a plan to erect a statue of national independence hero General Aung San in the capital of eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state should be wary of whether they are being manipulated by the political opposition, the spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy party said Friday.
Myo Nyunt told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he wants protesters in Loikaw, capital of eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state, to consider if they are being used by a political force that wants to gain an advantage.
Plans to erect statues of General Aung San in Kayah and other states have sparked opposition by ethnic minority groups who revere their own local war heroes and see the moves as a bid by the current civilian government to "Burmanize,"or assimilate, them, as did previous military-led governments.
“Bogyoke Aung San is the one who led the effort to sign the Panglong Agreement that was the first step towards a federal union for all ethnics,” Myo Nyunt said. “I feel that we are being taken political advantage of by those who noted that authorities cracked down on the protest against the Bogyoke statue.”
“I want those who object to the building of the Bogyoke statue to reconsider if they are being used for political advantage by a political force,” he said, though he did not name a specific political group.
Myo Nyunt also said that the NLD did not issue an order to build the statue to commemorate the father of Myanmar’s current de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi or provide any money for it.
Individuals have contributed private funds to erect the statue, he added.
The NLD will discuss the issue with protesters and others in Loikaw who object to the statue to see if the project will pose any disadvantages, Myo Nyunt said.
General Aung San, affectionately known as Bogyoke (General) in Burmese, is considered a hero for his role in freeing Myanmar from British colonial rule 70 years ago. He also signed a pact known as the Panglong Agreement with Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minority leaders in February 1947 to grant the groups ethnic autonomy within an independent Myanmar.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, is spearheading the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, the reincarnation of the peace negotiations with Myanmar’s ethnic groups that were started by her father.
Some ethnic armed groups have continued to battle Myanmar forces in their quest for a federal democratic union in the country with a constitutional guarantee for a certain degree of autonomy for ethnic minorities.
Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi has made it a goal of her administration to end decades of civil war between the Myanmar military and ethnic militias that have ravaged the developing democracy.
The current government held the first round of peace talks in 2016 and has scheduled the third round for July 11-16.
Clash with police
The Kayah state government plans to dedicate the 15-foot-tall bronze equestrian statue of General Aung San, commissioned for an expected cost of 60 million kyats (U.S. $42,300), in Loikaw’s Kandar Haywun Park on July 19 to commemorate Martyrs’ Day, according to a report by the online news service Democratic Voice of Burma.
The national holiday marks the anniversary of the day that General Aung San and six members of his cabinet were assassinated at the Secretariat Building — the administrative seat of British Burma, as the country was then called — in downtown Yangon.
About 700 people participated in the protest against the plans to erect the statue in Loikaw on Tuesday, some of whom clashed with police who beat them with batons and electric wands, protest leader Khun Myo Hlaing Win said.
Before they were stopped by police, they had planned to join three other groups in the park and then stage a march, he said.
Dee De, one of the protesters who was later charged by police for distributing fliers opposing the statue, said the demonstrators would rather have peace and a better political situation than statues.
“We want the government to do more important work than building statues,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “It won’t change anything if we have statues. We see that the government has important work to do, such as ensuring equal rights and having peace and a better political situation in the country.”
“[B]uilding statues can have more disadvantages than advantages,” he said. “The Kayah state government didn’t even discuss building the statue with the local people.”
On Wednesday, Al Foung Sho, chief minister of eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state, said the protest was illegal.
“The civilian government allows for peaceful assembly, but it needs to be according to law,” he said. “Trouble between protesters and police broke out ... during the protest because it was not conducted according to law.”
Al Foung Sho went on to say that the protesters did not apply for permission from local authorities 24 hours in advance to hold their demonstration, as the law requires.
“They didn’t come to talk when authorities asked them to come and talk about the protest,” he said. “They passed the security gates whiles they were marching. They broke laws. If they do whatever they want like this, we won’t have the democracy that we all want.”
Seven Kayah-based civil society organizations had issued a statement demanding that the state government not erect the statue by the Kayah State Hall, said Khun Barrnet from the Union of Karenni State Youth.
“We Karenni have our historical leaders in our own history,” he said. “We can’t even build their statues. We don’t think the Bogyoke statue should be built now while political dialogue is still needed.”
13 protesters arrested
Khun Myo Hlaing Win said demonstrators applied for permission to stage a protest at the township’s police station.
The protesters chanted against those who want to create disharmony with ethnic groups and to try to “erase Karenni history,” he said, using another name for the Kayah ethnic minority group.
“Don’t accept the forced building of the Bogyoke statue by the Kayah state government,” they chanted.
About 100 police officers were deployed between Township Hall and State Hall,” Khun Myo Hlaing Win said. “We negotiated with them, but were not successful.”
Police also threatened protesters by pointing guns in their faces, he said.
RFA was unable to reach the state government office, township administrative office, or township police.
Khun Myo Hlaing Win and nine other young people who had distributed fliers since June 26 opposing the statue have been charged with defamation and incitement under Articles 505(b) and 506(c) of the Penal Code at Loikaw Township Court.
The 10 who showed up at court were released on bail of 3 million kyats (U.S. $2,120) each, said Kyaw Htin Aung, director of the LAIN Technical Support Group, noting that all those arrested are NLD supporters.
The other three did not appear because their names and the names of their parents were incorrect on their summonses, he said,
“They object to the building of the Bogyoke statue right now because the NLD government should be fulfilling its promises and focusing on the peace process,” he said.
“All of them, including myself, will not let any political force take advantage of our activity, because we are doing what should be done,” he said.
The Karenni Army, the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) that operates in Kayah state, is one of the ethnic militias that has not signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA). Ten other ethnic armed groups have already signed the pact.
“People say this statue shouldn’t be built while the KNPP hasn’t signed the NCA yet,” Kyaw Htin Aung said.
Bridge name change
Protests have been staged in recent months in other regions of Myanmar with sizeable ethnic minority populations, such as Mon state in the southeast, Kachin state in the north, and Chin state in the west, that plan to erect statues or infrastructure projects dedicated to General Aung San,
In April, more than 70,000 people signed a petition in southern Myanmar's Mon state to change the name of a bridge connecting Chaungzon and Mawlamyine townships.
The bridge’s former name was Thanlwin Bridge, but the lower house of parliament under the current NLD government approved a motion to change its name to General Aung San Bridge.
Thousands of locals, most of them Mon ethnics, protested against the new name.
Also in April, a group of ethnic Chin university students who opposed plans to erect a General Aung San statue in Chin state's Htantlangtwo township submitted a list of demands to officials, calling for state funds to be spent on education and local development projects instead of the statue, the online news service Democratic Voice of Burma reported. They also called on the national government to designate Chin National Day as an official holiday in the state, one of the least developed regions in Myanmar.
Salai Ceu Bik Thawng, secretary of the Chin National Democratic Party, which represents the interests of the ethnic Chin people, told RFA on April 16 that he did not approve of plans to erect the General Aung San statues around the country after the Chin state parliament moved to put up the statue.
The largest statue of the general — a 13-foot-high brass replica — stands in Mandalar Tagon Park in Mandalay's Pyigyitagon township. It was dedicated in June 2017 to mark the 70th anniversary of his assassination.
Reported by Aung Theinkha, Nay Rein Kyaw, and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.