The Myanmar government should immediately end its crackdown on freedom of assembly in Kayah State and ensure accountability for the use of violence against protesters, ARTICLE 19 said today. News outlets covering a protest in Loikaw, Kayah State reported that Myanmar authorities this morning shot rubber bullets into a crowd of protesters, injuring up to 10 individuals.
12 February is Union Day, a national holiday in Myanmar.
“The use of violence against protesters in an ethnic capital stands in stark contrast to the ideals of peace and unity purportedly being celebrated on Union Day,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the NLD government’s vision of national unity leaves no room for public discourse or dissent.”
As many as 3,000 protesters gathered in the Kayah State capital this morning to demand the removal of a statue of General Aung San, the father of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and a prominent figure in Myanmar’s struggle for independence. Today’s protest was the latest in a series of rallies against the statue since June 2018. Karenni groups have contested the erection of the statue on the basis of unfulfilled promises to ethnic minority groups since Myanmar’s independence.
In July 2018, Kayah State Minister L Phaung Sho agreed to postpone the construction of the statue while seeking input from the public. However, the statue was erected without notice on 29 January 2019. Renewed protests began on 1 February 2019, leading to the arrest of 20 protesters under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. Police arrested another 46 protesters on 7 and 8 February, making a total of 82 mostly ethnic Karenni individuals arrested since the protests began.
The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law has been used repeatedly in recent years to silence dissent. In January 2018, the law was used to prosecute five ethnic Karenni individuals who organized a protest in Loikaw to call for accountability for Myanmar Army soldiers for the killing of unarmed Karenni soldiers. The law has also been used to arrest and charge dozens of anti-war protesters taking part in rallies throughout the country.
ARTICLE 19 has long called for the reform of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law in line with international law. The government should immediately drop criminal proceedings against all individuals charged under the law.
“Instead of listening to the concerns of ethnic minorities and addressing the issues underlying these protests, the government has resorted to violence and piled on prosecutions,” said Matthew Bugher. “Any genuine peace efforts must begin with dialogue. An approach that relies solely on coercion and physical force is destined to fail.”