February 8, 2019
By Thu Thu Aung
YANGON (Reuters) – Dozens of activists in eastern Myanmar face charges of unlawful assembly, an activist leader said on Friday, after police broke up the latest protest against a statue of Aung San, the nation’s independence hero and father of leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Police arrested 36 people on Thursday outside the headquarters of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in the Kayah state capital of Loikaw, said Di Di, spokesman for the Karenni Youth Force Protest Camp Committee.
Another 10 people were arrested on Friday, he said.
A video posted on Facebook by another group, the Union of Karenni State Youth, showed police pulling away young men and women who were sitting in a circle singing a protest song.
The video could not be verified independently by Reuters.
An officer who answered the phone at Loikaw police station declined to comment, and state officials could not be contacted.
The protests began last year after the Kayah government announced plans for a gold-coloured statue of General Aung San riding a horse, which was inaugurated this month.
Members of the Karenni minority oppose the prominent monument to a leader from the country’s Burman majority.
Aung San, the founder of Myanmar’s armed forces, is credited with bringing the country’s ethnic minorities together before his assassination in 1947. However, minorities say the goal of a fair federal system has not been achieved.
His daughter, Suu Kyi, won elections in 2015 but shares power with the military.
She needs to retain support in ethnic minority areas to win elections next year, and secure peace with armed groups that profess to fight for minority rights and autonomy.
A total of 54 protesters have been charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law since protests against the statue began in mid-2018, said Di Di.
If convicted, the protesters face six months in jail.
Nine of the activists are also accused of defamation and incitement, charges that carry a jail term of two years, he said.
The protesters believe it is their duty to fight against a version of history that downplays Karenni autonomy in favor of the role of Aung San, Di Di said.
“We must have a right to self-determination and a right to regional autonomy. The government must guarantee these rights,” he said.
Fortify Rights, which is monitoring the demonstrations, urged the government to end a crackdown on peaceful protesters.
“No one should spend any time in court or behind bars for exercising their human rights,” the group’s chief executive, Matthew Smith, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; writing by Simon Lewis; editing by Darren Schuettler)