Myanmar police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to disperse a protest over a statue of independence hero General Aung San that is opposed by members of the Karenni ethnic minority, police and a protest leader said.
Organisers said at least 3,000 people gathered on Tuesday on the Union Day holiday in Loikaw, the capital of the mountainous eastern state of Kayah, also known as Karenni, despite being denied permission for the demonstration.
Since the Loikaw statue was unveiled this month, depicting the general in gold riding a horse, 54 people have been charged with unlawful assembly, incitement and defamation.
“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, said at the protest, broadcast live on Facebook using smartphones.
The father of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San was the architect of a February 12, 1947 agreement among ethnic groups which is marked by the annual holiday, but minorities say, was never implemented after his assassination that year.
On taking power in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi set her top priority as securing peace with ethnic armed groups, but slow progress and rising dissatisfaction with her party in minority areas pose a challenge for elections set for next year.
More than 10 people suffered minor injuries in the police effort to disperse the protest, Khun Thomas told Reuters news agency. Images posted on social media showed circular wounds on the faces and torsos of young men wearing traditional tunics.
Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, criticised what she called a “violent police response” to the protests.
“The government of Myanmar must respect the right of all people to peacefully assemble and express their views about issues that concern them,” Lee said in a statement issued in Geneva. “Using disproportionate force against peaceful protesters is entirely unacceptable. The arrests must stop.”
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.”
The demonstration ended on Tuesday evening when officials agreed to revoke the charges against the activists, who said they would suspend the protests while the two sides negotiate, according to state-run media and Khun Thomas.
In a statement, Fortify Rights, a human rights group working in Myanmar, urged an investigation into the police violence.
“The Myanmar authorities have a long history of using excessive and lethal force against peaceful protesters,” said Matthew Smith, Fortify Rights’ CEO. “The government needs to break the trend now, protect the right to protest and listen to the Karenni people.”
About two dozen people demonstrated in the commercial capital, Yangon, in support of the Loikaw protests and to oppose the construction of more statues of General Aung San.
“No more statues – give us food,” read the slogans on signs they held up near the city’s independence monument.