Authorities Beef Up Security in Myanmar’s Rakhine State Following Police Shooting

Criticism is mounting over the police response to a protest and the arrest of a local lawmaker.

Security personnel monitor the exterior of a government building in Sittwe, in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Jan. 19, 2018.

Authorities in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state are bolstering security measures amid public anger over a deadly incident in which police opened fire on a crowd of ethnic Rakhine protesters, a police official said Friday.

On Tuesday, 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.

Authorities have said they plan 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.

On Friday, after netizens posted comments on social media condemning Aye Maung’s arrest, around 100 people gathered at Wingaba stadium in Sittwe in protest, but dispersed after police arrived and warned them to adhere to laws governing the right to demonstrate.

Police colonel Aung Myat Moe of the Rakhine state police force told RFA’s Myanmar Service that security personnel had been deployed to several areas of Sittwe to ensure calm.

“We made an announcement telling community leaders and the public to protest according to the law—they can gather only after receiving permission,” he said.“

We have deployed security guards at 10 places in Sittwe. The situation in town remains calm.”

Call for probe

In a statement Friday, a group of 70 civil society organizations called for an independent probe into the killing of protesters in Mrauk U.

While authorities have said police confronting protesters throwing bricks 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 cam without sufficient alert.

Soe Naing, a spokesperson or the committee representing the civil society organizations said that only an investigation independent of the government could be counted on to deliver a fair assessment of the incident and prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future.

“It is saddening to have this kind of incident take pace under a government elected by the people,” Soe Naing said.

“The information released by the authorities is different from the situation on the ground and that’s why the NLD (National League for Development) government needs to investigate who gave the order to shoot people,” he said.

“If an independent inquiry group led by respected people works on this problem, we will have an answer about what really happened.”

Witness accounts

Meanwhile, witnesses on Friday continued to deliver accounts of what occurred at Tuesday’s protest that differed significantly from the official version, suggesting police had employed excessive force in response.

A 31-year-old shooting victim and resident of Mrauk U who gave his name as Than said that police had initially fired into the air, causing the crowd to scatter.

“But when we ran, they shot at us,” he said from his bed at Mrauk U hospital.

“I was shot and people sent me for treatment.”

Another Mrauk U resident recovering from a bullet wound at the hospital, named Kyaw Khine Win, told RFA that six police officers had fired “about 60 rounds into the air and at the protesters.”

“The police shot me when I was trying to assist those injured by the first volley,” he said.

Ei Phyu, the sister of 15-year-old Kyaw Thein Soe, who was killed in the incident, said that her brother “wasn’t killed by the shooting.”

“We didn’t see any bullet wounds on his body—only wounds from a knife and blunt objects,” she said.

“The authorities came to the funeral and paid us 500,000 kyats (U.S. $370) for my brother. We don’t know who paid it to us, but we returned it to the authorities. Is a life only worth 500,000 kyats?”

Other relatives of those killed in the incident reported being offered the same amount of money as compensation for their loved ones, but said they returned the money. Aung Thein, a local security officer who was tasked with offering the compensation, confirmed that the families of all seven victims had returned the cash.

Methods questioned

Local Rights groups questioned the police response to the protest and called for greater accountability.

Yu Lwin Aung, a member of the Myanmar Human Rights Commission, said that without having witnessed the incident, he could not say whether police had violated the rights of the protesters.

“We don’t know why police felt they had to use lethal force against the mob,” he said.

“The relevant authorities must investigate whether the police addressed the incident according to the law or not.”

Aung Myo Min, the director of rights group Equality Myanmar, noted that the European Union had previously provided training to Myanmar’s police on how to address riots.

“We want to determine who gave the order to shoot because accountability is weak,” he said.

“It is wrong to restrict people from gathering at an event, and the government’s action can be seen as human rights violation.”

Reported by Min Thein Aung, Nay Rein Kyaw, Thinn Thiri and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.