RANGOON — A protest in Rangoon’s Bahan Township against the Arakan State Advisory Commission saw confrontations between firebrand nationalists and frustrated locals on Sunday. Two journalists covering the protests were also assaulted by nationalist protestors.
A few hundred nationalists assembled at the Bosein Mhan sports ground including leading monks from groups such as the Ma Ba Tha-affiliated Myanmar Nationalist Network. A Buddhist nationalist named Zaw Win applied for the peaceful assembly permit from local police, the head of Bahan Township police U Win Swe verified.
Speeches from a makeshift stage and banners denounced—in sometimes racist language—former UN-chief Kofi Annan, who is heading the commission, as well as Rangoon Division Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein and Mandalay Division Chief Minister U Zaw Myint Maung, who have publicly criticized Ma Ba Tha and the Buddhist nationalist movement in Burma.
People began heckling and cursing demonstrators after police refused locals access to play football. A quarrel broke out at the western corner of the park, away from the rally stage. Police struggled to mediate the situation and maintain peace.
As reporters and photographers approached to cover the aggression, seasoned photojournalist Ko Myat Thu Kyaw was accosted by three unidentified men. Irrawaddy reporter Ko Moe Myint, witnessed the men punch the photographer twice in the face.
“Many people punched my face. I don’t know who they are; I did not recognize them,” said Ko Myat Thu Kyaw. Ko Thura from media outlet Mizzima was among others attacked at different locations around the sports ground, according to reporters.
Nationalists are unhappy about the inclusion of foreigners on the commission, which was created at the behest of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Last week a proposal to debate the removal of international members of the commission was voted down in parliament.
Thu Nanda, a leading monk with the National Saving Youths Society, called Kofi Annan Ngafi Annan, “ngafi” being an insulting slang term in Burmese. He also used a racial slur, Ghana Kalar Mae—“Ghana” referring to Kofi Annan’s Ghanaian nationality, “kalar” being a derogatory word used for Muslims or those of Indian descent, and “mae” meaning black.
Hundreds of Arakanese migrant workers in garment factory participated in the rally. “We are dissatisfied with Kofi Annan’s inclusion. That’s why we are here today,” said one female worker, who declined to give her name, or that of their organizer.
This is not the first time journalists have been threatened and abused at nationalist rallies. At a demonstration against the death sentence handed to two Burmese migrant workers by a Thai judge in December 2015, Ma Ba Tha supporters encouraged attendees to “beat the reporters, skin those guys” when they began covering a quarrel at the rally.