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Myanmar Minorities Protest Ethnic Inequality Amid Heavy Police Crackdown

  • Police officers arrest activists during a protest against a statue of General Aung San, Myanmar's independence in Loikaw, Kayah state, Myanmar February 7, 2019.

    Police officers arrest activists during a protest against a statue of General Aung San, Myanmar's independence in Loikaw, Kayah state, Myanmar February 7, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 12 February 2019

Some 3,000 members of the Karenni ethnic minority are protesting the statue of a 1947 independence and peace leader they say the country has never fulfilled.  

Myanmar police sprayed rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at some 3,000 protesters gathered in the main square of Loikaw, the capital of Karenni state, to demonstrate against a statue of the independence leader General Aung San on the nation’s day of independence, Feb. 12.

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Around 3,000 members of the Karenni ethnic minority gathered to demonstrate not against the state, per se, but against the government’s unfulfilled promises of ethnic equality within the country.

"We are not objecting to the general's statue itself—we are demanding to implement his promises first," Khun Thomas, a leader of the Karenni State Youth Force announced via a Facebook live broadcast from the protests on Monday.

"We are going to continue our protest," said the Karenni youth leader.

Aung San was the architect of a Feb. 12, 1947 pact signed among various ethnic groups of Myanmar meant to bring about peace and independence but that, as protesters said on Monday, after over 70 years has yet to come to fruition. Aung San is the father of Myanmar’s current leader Aung San Suu Kyi who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

On taking power in 2016, after decades of military-led governments, Suu Kyi set her top priority as securing peace with ethnic armed groups. However, since then she has been accused by the United Nations of giving the go-ahead to the genocide and forced expulsion of more than 720,000 mostly-Muslim Rohingyas from the Rakhine State of Myanmar since Aug. 2017. Many of the Rohingyas have sought shelter in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Participants in Tuesday's protest, the largest in a series that began in the state in mid-2018 after officials announced plans to install the statue, demanded that its top official and finance minister resign for failing to negotiate with them.

More than 10 people suffered minor injuries in the police effort to scatter the protest, Reuters says. Images posted on social media showed circular wounds on the faces and torsos of young men wearing traditional tunics.

The police tactics were meant only to intimidate protesters with noise, police chief Win Htay said.

"The situation is stable now," he added. "The kids are just showing their opinion."

This month's unveiling of the Loikaw statue, depicting the general in gold atop a horse, has revived the trend of protests, in which a total of 54 people have been charged since last year with unlawful assembly, incitement and defamation. "No more statues - give us food," read the slogans on protesters’ signs.

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