YANGON — A police crackdown on a protest in northern Rakhine State’s ancient city of Mrauk-U on Tuesday night left at least seven people dead and 12 severely wounded by gunfire, according to a local lawmaker.
U Tun Thar Sein, who represents Mrauk-U (1) in the state Parliament, spoke with The Irrawaddy over the phone at 2:45 a.m. on Wednesday after returning home from Mrauk-U’s general hospital. He said some of the 12 patients had been transferred to the state capital, Sittwe, about 141 km away.
“I saw that the victims were shot at least twice, mostly in the abdomen and legs”, he said.
He said several thousand people were protesting on Tuesday evening against a decision by authorities to ban celebration of the 233rd anniversary of the end of the Arakan dynasty. Locals commemorate the event each year on Dec. 15 and 16 with traditional wrestling matches and talks on literature by activists and influential politicians.
The protestors who gathered on the roads were few in number at first, but their ranks swelled to a few thousand within hours. The crowd then marched to the district administration office at about 9:30 p.m., approximately 2 km northeast of downtown.
A high school teacher in Mrauk-U said many 11th grade students preparing to sit their matriculation exams in the next few months also joined the rally.
“The roads in Mrauk-U were taken over by the protesters within a few hours,” he said.
U Tun Thar Sein, the lawmaker, said tensions between the protestors and police quickly escalated at about 10 p.m. Many of the protestors started hurling stones and bricks at the administration office. When some of them entered the office compound and started destroying police trucks, the police opened fire to quell the attack.
Though local authorities said the protestors confronted the police, U Tun Thar Sein said he did not see any police as patients at the hospital, only dead and wounded civilians.
“This mass killing would not have happened if they had used rubber bullets to crack down on the gathering,” he said. “I think the protestors only gathered bricks and stones and did not have any other weapons.”
The high school teacher said he did not participate in the protest but followed the rally in order to pull out his students. He said he heard a series of gunshots while heading toward the administration office and then saw thousands of people running back toward downtown.
“Police used real bullets, not rubber rounds. I saw a boy’s abdomen hollowed out,” the teacher said.
The teacher said he went to the Mrauk-U general hospital and saw nine people severely wounded. He recalled the accounts of his students, who told him they saw police firing at the crowd.
“My students recounted to me that they laid down on the ground when they saw the flying burning bullets. They were very lucky,” he said.
The Irrawaddy called township police chief Major Kyaw Mya Win and administration official Bo Bo Min Theik, but they declined to comment. A junior staff member of the district administration office said that “a protest group destabilized the situation” but refused to answer further questions.
Two military truckloads of armed soldiers arrived at the scene of the violence at about 11:30 p.m.
The previous headline to this story said “9 People Reported Dead'” based on witness accounts. We have changed the number to be in line with the official announcement, which puts the death toll at seven.