YANGON — Moe Zaw Thu, head of the No.1 police station in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that local police have opened a case into five Arakanese men for violating the Peaceful Assembly Law while protesting in front of the state government office last week.
The five men held a protest in Sittwe on Jan. 17 accusing police of using disproportionate force to put down a protest in the ancient northern Rakhine city of Mrauk-U the day before and demanding a transparent investigation. Police fire left seven people dead and 12 wounded.
Moe Zaw Thu said anyone planning a protest must by law ask authorities for permission at least 48 hours in advance and that the township police major can take action against those who fail to do so. He said protesters accused of failing to follow the law would also be branded fugitives if they evade authorities.
The police officer said authorities can grant suspects bail and that the penalty for those found guilty was usually a three-month prison sentence or a fine of 30,000 kyats. He declined to name the suspects in the Sittwe protest because the case was still under investigation.
Khine Thurein, one of the Jan. 17 protesters in Sittwe, criticized the investigation. He said it contradicted the spirit of remarks by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi following the deaths in Mrauk-U expressing concern that the spread of racial hate speech between ethnic Rakhine and Bamar could further divide the two communities.
“The government and all the people who hold power need to review their approach if they really want to properly address the problems in Rakhine State,” he said.
Khine Thurein said more arrests could directly impact the stability of Rakhine State and would only make matters worse. He suggested the government focus on rebuilding trust with the Rakhine community first.
“The conduct of the government is forcing Arakanese townsfolk to choose a rebel path,” he added.
On Tuesday the state government arrested eight people at a Sittwe hospital being treated for gunshot wounds sustained during the police crackdown on the Jan. 16 protest in Mrauk-U. Four others wounded in the same protest left the Mrauk-U hospital where they were being treated early fearing their own arrests.
On the afternoon of Jan. 16, hundreds of Mrauk-U residents took to the streets to protest the government’s last-minute ban on celebrating the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Rakhine Dynasty. Mrauk-U authorities originally allowed anniversary events to proceed, but the State Border Affairs Ministry overruled the permit and instructed the organizers to apply again.
Rakhine State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu has told reporters that the government would arrest the Mrauk-U protesters and those who organized a preceding lecture for violating exiting laws. Mrauk-U resident Ko Tun said the warning has driven dozens of locals to flee the city.
A group of activists has meanwhile applied for permission to hold a mass rally in Kyauk Taw Township next week to condemn the police shootings in Mrauk-U. They are hoping to draw some 1,500 people.