Around 150 protesters gathered in Munaung township, in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Monday to demand the release of two ethnic Rakhine nationalists who were arrested and charged with incitement last week amid fallout from a deadly clash between members of the minority group and police.
On Jan. 16, police shot dead at least seven protesters and wounded 13 others after thousands of members of the Rakhine minority group marking a Buddhist anniversary converged on the government office in the town of Mrauk U when authorities attempted to stop the event.
Police have since arrested Rakhine social critic Wai Hin Aung and Rakhine nationalist lawmaker Aye Maung after they delivered speeches calling for revolt against Myanmar’s ethnic majority Bamar-led government in nearby Rathedaung township and charged them under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act.
On Monday, Rakhine state chief minister Nyi Pu said the government plans to charge the two men, and organizers of the anniversary event—who did not obtain permission for the gathering—with “high treason” under Section 122 of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which carries a maximum punishment of death.
Protesters gathered in Munaung Monday demanding that authorities release Aye Maung and Wai Hin Aung and called the Mrauk U incident a “violation of human rights.”
“The act by the authorities will hurt national reconciliation,” said protest leader Than Naing, referencing efforts to get Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups to end their differences and work together in support of the union government.
“The authorities should work to resolve problems with patience, but we feel that they simply wanted to demonstrate their power to the people.”
While authorities have said police confronting protesters throwing bricks last week delivered warnings via loudspeaker, fired warning shots into the air, and fired rubber bullets into the crowd before switching to live ammunition, observers have questioned the account, suggesting the shots came without sufficient alert.
The Rakhine government continued to beef up security in the region Monday amid public anger over the shooting incident and arrests, according to a report by Eleven Myanmar media group.
Eleven quoted police colonel Aung Myat Moe of the Rakhine state police force as saying a security alert had been issued in 17 major townships in Rakhine, including the capital Sittwe, and that officers had been deployed in areas where crowds might congregate.
“According to a tip, terrorists and those who create riots are now monitoring the present situation in Sittwe aiming to cause violence again,” he said, calling on the public to inform the authorities if they come across “suspicious people, objects, or vehicles.”
Calls for probe
Meanwhile criticism of the police response to last week’s protests continued to mount Monday, with Fortify Rights and ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issuing statements demanding urgent independent investigations into the crackdown.
“The Government must ensure these killings are properly investigated and that responsible police officers are prosecuted without delay,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, which is based in Southeast Asia and registered in Switzerland and the U.S.
“The victims and survivors, their families, and the people of Rakhine State deserve swift justice. Impunity in this case could easily enflame ethnic tensions.”
Fortify Rights noted that Myanmar’s army has used Rakhine civilians as forced porters during episodes of armed conflict against the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, while Rakhine farmers have reportedly dealt with unlawful land confiscation for years.
“Rakhine State has been shattered by conflict and human rights violations for too long,” Smith said.
“Peace in Rakhine and elsewhere in the country is not going to come from the barrel of a gun. The government’s response to this situation will influence the course of events in Rakhine State and much is at stake.”
APHR called last week’s incident a “tragic event, which must be urgently investigated,” with the group’s chairperson, Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, citing reports that he said suggest police action was “wholly disproportionate.”
“The incident should be thoroughly and impartially investigated, and perpetrators must be held accountable,” Santiago said.
“The events in Mrauk-U further emphasize serious concerns about the conduct of Myanmar’s security forces and the lack of accountability for their actions. The impacts of these actions on ethnic minorities are particularly acute, as this and numerous other recent events demonstrate.”
Santiago noted that on Jan. 18, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for an investigation into the incident and assured that action will be taken against those found to have broken the law.
“The relevant authorities must act quickly on the State Counsellor’s call and take all steps necessary for an effective investigation,” he said.
“It is the responsibility of the Myanmar government and military to ensure that all people, regardless of their ethnic or religious background are able to enjoy their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.”
Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch, London-based Amnesty International, and a group of 70 civil society organizations in Myanmar called for an independent probe into the killing of protesters in Mrauk U.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.