Karenni Activists Walk Out of Gov’t Meeting

By Lawi Weng 14 May 2019

The latest round of talks between the Kayah state government and local rights activists collapsed after just 20 minutes on Tuesday. The rights group walked out of the meeting in Loikaw, the state capital, after Kayah State Chief Minister L Phaung Sho said his government would stand firm on not allowing the removal of the disputed statue of General Aung San.

“We tried to negotiate, but the condition is that we still cannot find a solution. Therefore, regarding the statue of Gen. Aung San, the Kayah state government want to propose that we will not allow it to be removed,” the chief minister said in his speech at the opening of the meeting.

The intention of the meeting was to discuss the details of the removal of the statue, however he instead insisted that his government will protect the statue and carry out maintenance works on the public park where it is located. He said that his government would not change its stance on the statue case.

“His speech showed that he does not wish to have further negotiations. Therefore, we left the meeting,” said Khun Thomas, spokesperson for Karenni right activists.

“For us, we know that even if we have a meeting, we cannot get any results,” he said.

Members of the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) did not participate in Tuesday’s meeting, according to the rights group. Some local lawmakers and observers were in attendance, they added.

In a statement the activist group issued on Tuesday, the group said they will no longer continue their efforts. There are plans to form new group under different leadership which will continue to work towards the removal of the statue, but the original group of activists said they will not be responsible for the new group’s actions.

“We will let our people decide what to do about the statue. Our committee will not decide what to do this time. Our [original] committee is dissolved as of today,” said Khun Thomas.

When asked how the activists intend to remove the statue, Khun Thomas said it depends on the future leaders of their group. However, he did insist that violence would not be used in the cause.

The chief minister’s actions were not only representative of the state government’s opinion on the statue, they were that of the Union government’s too, according to Khun Thomas.

“It is very sad to see that [the Union government] ignores our minority’s rights,” he said.

In their most recent meeting held on May 7, the rights group and the government representatives agreed to form an eight-member committee to continue negotiations and work towards the removal of the statue.

The statue was erected by the government in February amid much protest from Karenni locals. The local authorities went on to use the police force to crack down on the protesters who were gathered at the park where the statue is located and later outside the local NLD headquarters. The state government began meeting the rights group with a view to finding a solution to the dispute in February. Over two meetings, no agreement could be reached, leading the NRPC to get involved in March. Even with their involvement, no further constructive results came out of another three meetings.

The Karenni complain that they have their own history involving their own ethnic leaders, and that the statue of Gen. Aung San is a symbol of the dominant role, the interests and the identity of the Burmese majority plays in the country, to the disadvantage of ethnic minorities. To them, it’s also a symbol of what they see as the yet-unfulfilled promises made by the assassinated general and the Panglong Agreement of 1947.