YANGON – Father of four U Thant decided to flee Mrauk-U General Hospital before the gunshot wounds to his calf had fully healed, after hearing that authorities planned to arrest him for taking part in a protest last Tuesday. Seven people were killed and 12 severely wounded when police opened fire on the protesters.
U Thant was one of four seriously injured protesters who had been receiving medical treatment at the hospital since last week. He was the last of the four to flee. Eight other injured protesters were taken to Sittwe Hospital.
“The doctor had suggested I remain in the hospital until [Wednesday] but I left today [Tuesday]. I don’t want to stay and be arrested, as I did nothing wrong,” said the casual laborer.
How the riot began
Last Tuesday, U Thant returned from working in a rice field on the outskirts of Mrauk-U to join an event scheduled for 6 p.m. commemorating the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan Dynasty. A local charity group organized the event and announced that prominent Arakanese politician U Aye Maung would deliver a literary lecture.
(The day after the riot in Mrauk-U, U Aye Maung was arrested for allegedly speaking in support of the Arakan Army (AA) and stoking anti-Burman sentiment in Rathaedaung Township in recent months.)
By the time U Thant reached downtown Mrauk-U, the event had already drawn a huge crowd as word spread that authorities had canceled the organizers’ permit. The ancient city of Mrauk-U, the former capital of the Arakan Kingdom ruled by Maha Thamada Razar, was conquered by the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty in 1784. More than two centuries later, Mrauk-U residents revived annual commemorations of the event under the Thein Sein government administration.
“I have no idea about politics; I just went there to listen to the lecture,” U Thant said.
As in previous years, the event’s organizers applied for a permit for the event from Mrauk-U’s Department of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Conservation. The department approved the proposal on Jan. 8, and three days later the organizers officially requested that police provide security guards for the event.
In a surprise order dated Jan. 15, Rakhine State Border Affairs Minister Colonel Phone Tint banned the memorial event and instructed the organizers to resubmit their application for a permit, citing the law on peaceful assembly. Almost immediately after this, Archeology Department Director U Nyein Lwin informed the group that the department’s permit for the event had been superseded by the minister’s order.
Angered by the decision, hundreds of attendees — including many from rural areas — began a march to the police station at around 7 p.m. The rally was immediately joined by thousands of people, including schoolchildren and young women.
After a 30-minute walk from downtown to the District Administration office on the outskirts of the town, the crowd arrived at the police station, which is situated near the administration compound.
“No one tried to stop the mass gathering as it moved along the road,” recalled Maung Aung Naing, one of those wounded in the subsequent police crackdown.
He recounted seeing policemen and protesters negotiating for almost 20 minutes near the entrance to the police station. Officers told the protesters that the ban had been ordered by district administrative officials and allowed the crowd to proceed to the administration office.
At about 9:30 p.m., protesters began chanting “The lecture must be allowed!” “Freedom for Arakan State!” and “Those who banned the literature lecture are our enemy!” in front of the offices. Soon after, a rumor quickly spread among the crowd that authorities had detained some local residents inside the offices.
When a group of young men carrying stones breached the fence and entered the government compound, warning shots rang out from the office in front of the crowd. But then, unexpectedly, four of five armed policemen emerged from the police station directly behind the protesters and started shooting directly into the crowd, according to witnesses.
“They fired from right behind us. I was on the street, not in the office compound. A bullet hit someone and then another one hit my left calf. People threw themselves on the ground; some were wounded. Some people tried to help the victims but police fired on the crowd again,” Maung Aung Naing said.
This account was confirmed by two other protesters who were injured, including Kyaw Khaing Win, 27. He said he heard a series of shots coming from the direction of the police station and saw four protesters fall to the ground.
In the hospital operating room later, Kyaw Khaing Win saw a bullet that had been removed from his buttock. “The head of the bullet had a copper color,” he said.
The testimony of the survivors conflicts in many points with an announcement from the Myanmar State Counsellor Office’s last week. According to the statement, authorities banned the lecture at 6 p.m. on Jan. 16, and an audience of about 400 people grew angry when the power to the venue was cut off.
One hour later, according to the statement, several hundred Mrauk-U residents walked around the city demanding the lecture be allowed to proceed. The rally rapidly swelled to around 5,000 people and marched to the district administration office along the Sittwe-Yangon Highway at about 8.30 p.m. Within half an hour the crowd had grown to almost 10,000 people, the statement said.
It also claimed that district authorities used megaphones to try to disperse the crowd about 15 times. Some protesters attempted to grab firearms from two policemen, it said, and about 4,000 rioters entered the government administration office compound and destroyed state property. As the situation was now unmanageable for the 30 police officers present, they fired 10 rounds into the crowd, according to the statement.
Online observers questioned how 10 rounds could leave seven protesters dead and 12 injured.
U Thant said, “As far as I remember, dozens of people entered, not 4,000 people. It’s totally impossible, the space isn’t big enough. They are exaggerating the number.”
According to the three survivors interviewed by The Irrawaddy, four or five rioters would not have died on the spot unless police had fired into the crowd multiple times. They also recalled seeing rioters with head injuries, as if they had been struck by rifle butts. The victims rejected the government’s account, saying it included exaggerations and caused false information to be spread.
Maung Aung Naing, 19, said, “They never used megaphones. I was hit when I tried to pick some injured men off the ground. It was horrible; I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
“We were empty handed, but they shot at us,” he said, adding that there were some police in the district office in front of the crowd, but the shooting came from behind the crowd. “I remember very well [the shots] came from right behind us,” he said.
It’s still unknown who verbally ordered the disproportionate response to the protest in Mrauk-U, beyond Col. Phone Tint’s warning that authorities would “take action against violators in line with the law.” Local news outlets reported that the order to fire on the protesters was given by local authorities rather than the border affairs minister. Rakhine civil society groups raised questions about how authorities could so easily have made a determination to open fire in a peaceful region that is not unstable like border towns such as Maungdaw district.
Failure of prevention
Responding to the brutal crackdown, Lower House lawmaker U Oo Hla Saw of Mrauk-U constituency said the government’s account was completely at odds with reality. He said the protesters had in fact marched for more than a mile-and-a-half from downtown to the district administration office on the outskirts of Mrauk-U.
The lawmaker said the Mrauk-U police office is located before the entrance to the district administration office, so police should have been able to prevent the rally by using anti-riot procedures such as erecting police barricades and barbed wire fencing, and deploying fire engines with water cannon. Even if these measures had failed, he said, police could have used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
“The Rakhine State government tried to justify the actions at a press conference yesterday by saying they had not expected such a big crowd. This is a very childish response,” U Oo Hla Saw said.
He pointed out that everyone knew where the mass protest was heading. The government also accused rioters of pulling down the Myanmar flag and hoisting the Arakan national flag at administration office. Under existing law, the national flag must be raised and lowered every morning and evening in line with office hours.
“The Rakhine Chief Minister is speaking mindlessly in order to protect officials. He knows nothing; the official account is utterly ridiculous,” the lawmaker said.
Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD) secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin said police should have taken steps to prevent the crowd from getting bigger. But Myanmar is no stranger to repression, he added, saying it rears its head periodically in different forms across the country.
He gave the example of the alleged quadruple homicide of Karenni National Progress Party (KNPP) members by Army troops in Kayah State in December. The case has yet to be brought to court despite protests by Kayah activists. In fact, the state’s civilian elected government moved quickly to arrest the activists, while showing no progress in the investigation into the alleged killings.
“There were no such incidents [as occurred in Mrauk-U] during ex-president Thein Sein’s administration, though they did crack down on riots, such as the Let Pan Daung protest and protests by students,” U Oo Hla Saw said.
“This is a stain on history and [the fallout] will not easily be resolved,” a senior SNLD senior official remarked.
U Oo Hla Saw has called on the government to establish an independent investigation team, made up of respected persons from human rights organizations, government officials and parliamentarians, as well as community leaders, to probe the police’s handling of the incident.
“The problem will only get bigger if the government keeps trying to hide the wrongdoings of local authorities. By ‘bigger’ I mean the Rakhine public will lose confidence in the government, which could harm the stability of Rakhine as well,” the lawmaker said.
On Monday, the Rakhine State government held a meeting with civil society groups and community leaders in Sittwe. The CSO representatives asked Chief Minister U Nyi Pu to form an independent investigation team. The chief minister said the state government had limited power to do so, and the demand would be evaluated by the Union government.
“I promise to do my best to solve this issue. I am ready to face punishment if I fail in my duties and responsibilities, and in addressing wrongdoings in this matter,” U Nyi Pu said.
It remains unclear, however, whether the Union government will form an investigation team, as a spokesman for the President’s Office, Zaw Htay, previously told The Irrawaddy that the Ministry of Home Affairs would handle the case.
“The deaths of seven people is a big deal; I am astonished by the ignorance of the government. This could badly harm its reputation,” U Oo Hla Saw said.
Further arrests, rumors fuel fears
While it has yet to open an inquiry, the Rakhine government on Tuesday morning arrested eight wounded protesters being treated in Sittwe Hospital. Security has been tightened, especially in Kyauktaw, Sittwe and Mrauk-U townships, amid growing rumors that the Arakan Army attacked government officials and were the perpetrators behind the Mrauk-U killings.
These rumors and unconfirmed reports have spread quickly. School teacher Ko Tun told The Irrawaddy that residents are extremely worried about being detained after the Rakhine State chief minister vowed to seize the leader of the charity group that organized the lecture.
“Parents won’t even let their children out of the house to go to school. Since last week, the streets have been deserted and the teashops are empty by around 10 p.m.” The teacher added that “people are saying that fighting between the AA and government troops is about to escalate.”