YANGON—The Karenni State government has agreed to drop lawsuits against 55 rights activists charged for their participation in a series of protests over the past year against the installation of a bronze statue of General Aung San in a park in the state capital, Loikaw.
Protest leaders and the state government reached an agreement after holding talks at noon on Tuesday, said rights activist Ko Kyaw Htin Aung, adding that the crowds outside the park then peacefully dispersed.
The talks came after thousands of local residents led by the Karenni State Youth Force staged a protest march earlier Tuesday against the bronze statue. Police used water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators who attempted to break through a police cordon. Over 20 people were injured in the clash, according to the committee that organized the protest.
Protesters had also demanded that the state chief minister and planning and finance minister, who they said are responsible for the statue, resign from their posts, and that all those detained for participating in the protest be unconditionally released.
The heated talks started around 3 p.m. and went on for four hours. “Youths agreed to suspend the demonstration in exchange for a promise [from police] that unfair lawsuits against 55 youths would be dropped,” Ko Kyaw Htin Aung said.
Since February 2018, authorities had opened 86 cases against 55 youths for protesting against the installation of the Gen. Aung San statue, and for offenses relating to their efforts to promote a Karenni perspective on history.
They were charged under Section 505 (b) and (c) of the Penal Code for defamation of the state, and under sections 19 and 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, Ko Kyaw Htin Aung said, adding that there were 86 cases because some youths were charged multiple times.
The state government said that the Gen. Aung San statue was funded by a committee comprising civil society organizations, and asked the protesters to hold talks with the committee. It said the talks should be aimed at reaching a decision within one month.
“And they said it was not the protesters’ place to demand the resignation of the state chief minister and the finance and planning minister, and that was [an issue] to be handled by the Union government,” Ko Kyaw Htin Aung said.
According to protesters, hundreds of people rallied in support of the statue during an inauguration ceremony on Feb. 2 and several National League for Democracy members, including the state chief minister, attended the event.
The two sides agreed that no further rallies, either for or against the statue, would be held at the park during the one-month negotiation period between the protesters’ committee and statue installation committee. However, rallies can be held at the Karenni State Hall.
At noon on Tuesday, Karenni youths and activists in Yangon staged a protest over the police use of rubber bullets against the demonstrators in Loikaw.
Holding placards reading, “What ethnic communities want is Gen. Aung San’s promise, not his statue,” and “Don’t kill Gen. Aung San again”, the demonstrators marched along Bo Aung Kyaw Street, Anawrahta Road and Sule Pagoda Road to Maha Bandoola Park.
“Local ethnicities have no right to determine their own destiny, and reveal their ‘true’ history. What’s worse is youths who reveal the true history are arrested and shot [with rubber bullets]. This is not an answer,” said Ma Ei Thinzar Maung, who participated in the demonstration.
The statue of the late independence hero was brought to Loikaw on Jan. 29. Local residents were surprised by its arrival, and accused the government of breaking a promise the state’s chief minister made in July not to erect it without the public’s approval.
Karenni State Chief Minister L Phaung Sho announced on June 12 last year the plan to unveil the statue on July 19 to mark Martyrs’ Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the assassination of Gen. Aung San and his cabinet members. The plan was then shelved after it met strong opposition from locals.