UPDATED at 1:35 P.M. EST on 2018-1-18
Police in western Myanmar’s volatile Rakhine state shot dead at least seven ethnic Rakhine protesters and wounded 13 others after members of the minority group marking a nationalist Buddhist anniversary tried to take over a local government building, sources said Wednesday.
More than 4,000 ethnic Rakhines had gathered in the town of Mrauk U Tuesday to take part in an annual event recognizing the end of the ancient ethnic kingdom 233 years earlier, Rakhine state government secretary Tin Maung Swe said, despite organizers having failed to obtain a permit.
Members of the crowd later protested at the site of the township’s government office, the secretary said, confronting officers and attempting to destroy property in the building, at which point police began to fire at them.
“The mob came into government office, tried to destroy property, and threw stones at the district administrator’s house,” Tin Maung Swe said.
“It was violence that hurt stability, and that’s why the police had to shoot at them to get them to disperse,” he said.
“The police tried to stop them with a warning by loudspeaker, shooting into the air, and then shooting at the crowd with rubber bullets, but the mob wouldn’t stop, and even tried to take the officers’ weapons. Because of this situation, the incident occurred. About 20 police were injured.”
Tin Maung Swe said authorities had launched an investigation into the shooting and would “take action according to law.”
It was not immediately clear why violence broke out at the event, but Agence France Presse quoted a police official as saying that the crowd was demanding the “sovereignty of Rakhine state.”
Rakhines who were present at Tuesday’s protest disputed the police account of the incident.
Kyaw Tun Oo, a member of the committee that organized the anniversary event, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he had applied to authorities well in advance for permission, but received no response until the day of the gathering.
“The order restricting the right to hold the ceremony came only a few hours before we began the ceremony,” he said, suggesting that the police effort to shut down the event had led to the protests.
A witness in Mrauk U, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that protesters “believed the police were firing into the air to disperse the crowd, but we saw seconds later that people were bleeding from the shots.”
Khaine Pyi Soe, the vice-chairman of the Arakan National Party, said the police had failed to follow a step-by-step procedure to deescalate tensions.
“I think the police skipped the requisite steps and employed disproportionate use of force to crack down on the crowd,” he said.
On Wednesday, London-based rights group Amnesty International, which said at least eight people had died in the incident, condemned the police shooting in Mrauk U in a statement as “yet another example of Myanmar security forces’ contempt for human life” and urged authorities to launch an investigation.
“Even if protesters were throwing stones and bricks, nothing can justify police apparently firing into a crowd of thousands. This is a clear case of excessive use of force in violation of the right to life.
Observers also questioned the government’s response to the incident on Wednesday.
“Using weapons against citizens is not the right way to solve problems … and the EU had provided training to the police on how to address riots,” said Mya Aye, the leader of the National Democratic Force political party.
“This leaves the government in a difficult situation politically, particularly at a time when the [ruling] NLD (National League for Democracy) has been governing with gunshots,” he added, referring to a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine state that followed attacks on government security posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents in late August 2017.
Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, criticized the government for waiting to release information about the police shooting.
“People were waiting for information for half a day, but it didn’t come out,” he said.
“There was fear that the situation would be misrepresented on social media, which has led to subsequent incidents in the past due to delays on the release of official information.”
Writer Chit Oo Nyo said that celebrating the end of the Rakhine Kingdom was an act of “incitement by people who don’t want stability” in Rakhine state, but also condemned the police for “using the wrong method to solve a problem, which led to deaths.”
Rakhines, also known as Arakanese, are one of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar, but have said that their interests are underrepresented in their own state and in the country’s legislature, which is dominated by majority ethnic Bamar.
Tensions have flared over the government’s handling of ethnic violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims in recent years.
Around 1 million Rohingyas are currently sheltering at cramped and squalid refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh, after fleeing cycles of violence in Rakhine state across the border, including at least 655,000 who crossed into the country since the military crackdown in August.
Refugees have accused soldiers of committing random killings, rape, and arson in their villages.
An estimated 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to avoid communal violence with local Rakhine communities and military operations prior to October 2016.
On Tuesday, Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials agreed to return hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to Myanmar from refugee camps in Bangladesh “preferably within two years” of beginning their repatriation, without specifying when the process would begin.
Later on Tuesday, Rakhine social critic Wai Hin Aung was arrested by police in Sittwe township for defamation after delivering speeches calling for revolt in Rathedaung townships the previous day together with Rakhine nationalist lawmaker Aye Maung. An arrest warrant was issued for Aye Maung on Wednesday.
Both men face charges under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act and Section 505(b) of the country’s Penal Code, which pertains to sedition.
Reported by Min Thein Aung, Waiyan Moe Myint, Tin Aung Khine, Thinn Thiri, and Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Correction: An earlier version of the story erroneously stated that Aye Maung was also an organizer of the anniversary event in Mrauk U.