The Kayah State government put up a statue of slain independence hero General Aung San in the state capital Loikaw on Thursday as dozens of local ethnic rights activists staged a protest nearby.
The activists began their peaceful protest at 2 p.m., sitting inside the park where government workers were erecting the statue. The state government deployed a heavy security presence at the park, where a line of police clad in riot gear stood between the protesters and the workers.
The protesters eventually moved to a camp they set up outside the park.
Throughout the day, the activists used loudspeakers and made a series of speeches directed at members of the public, who largely remained outside the park. The activists said the state government was wrong to put up the statue, as the majority of Loikaw residents opposed it. A number of ethnic communities around Myanmar have staged protests against statues of General Aung San in their states, viewing them as an attempt by the central government to impose control from outside and assimilate them.
If the National League for Democracy-led government felt obliged to put up a statue in Loikaw, the activists said, they should put it in front of the NLD’s office in the town, not in a public place.
The government’s actions disrespected the feelings of local people, they said, adding that the government used its power to do whatever it wanted while ignoring the wishes of indigenous people.
The rights activists also said the NLD government had a political purpose for putting up the statue. “This isn’t fair. Their actions are an insult to we indigenous people,” one of them said.
After protesting inside the park for about two hours, the activists moved from the park to another site where opponents of the statue have set up a camp as an ongoing protest.
Khun Thomas, a member of the Kayan New Generation Youth organization, told The Irrawaddy that the group set up the camp near the park to make the government aware of its opposition to the statue.
“We have opened the ‘strike’ camp. We do not know how long this strike will last, but we will stay at the camp. If police crack down on the protesters at the camp, it will be the responsibility of the state government,” Khun Thomas said.
The activists asked the government to negotiate with them at the camp as soon as possible.
Some police officers arrived at the camp and ordered the activists there to remove it, saying it was established without permission. “They told us it was a restricted area. They threatened to take action if we refused to withdraw,” Khun Thomas said. The activists ignored the police warning, but no arrests were made.
A group of activists met with Kayah State Minister of Planning and Finance U Maw Maw on Thursday at his office. U Maw Maw told them it was State government project, and he was powerless to stop it.
Kyaw Htin Aung, one of the activists who met with U Maw Maw, asked to be allowed to meet with the leaders of the project, but was told the project team refused to meet protesters.
Kyaw Htin Aung then demanded the government disclose the cost of putting up the statue, but U Maw Maw refused.
The statue of Gen. Aung San arrived in Loikaw on Tuesday, against the wishes of many local residents.