The death of seven people during a police crackdown in Mrauk-U in northern Rakhine State last week does not look good for the government. Making matters worse, it was the deadliest response by government security forces so far since the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy government assumed power in March 2016. Local Arakanese (Rakhine) people were so frustrated that they dubbed the crackdown the ‘Mrauk-U Massacre.’
Furthermore, the way security forces handled the situation on Tuesday night is very questionable.
On the afternoon of Jan. 16, hundreds of Mrauk-U residents took to the streets to protest the government’s last-minute ban on marking the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Rakhine Dynasty to the Bamar in the 18th century. The government said it banned the annual event because the venue was a former palace that has been listed as a national heritage site.
On the other hand, Mrauk-U people said the annual event had been permitted in the same place until last year. So, why not now?
The ban was probably because of ethno-nationalism and politically motivated comments—‘now it’s time for revolution to get free from Bamar’s slavery’ and ‘Bamar take Arakanese as their slaves’—made by a local author and prominent Rakhine lawmaker Dr. Aye Maung at a literary talk one day prior to the event.
Add to the fear of authorities, the lawmaker was also scheduled to deliver a speech in Mrauk-U to mark the fall of Rakhine Dynasty. With the active and popular Rakhine rebel group, the Arakan Army (AA), warring against the Myanmar Army for federalism, and centuries-old anti-Bamar sentiment among the Arakanese, local authorities surely didn’t want to see anyone who might promote nationalism in the special event that lamented the end of Rakhine Kingdom 233 years ago. So, they banned the event and all hell broke loose.
The result was that angry townsfolk rampaged the administrative office, clashed with security forces and seven people, most of them teenagers, were shot dead.
We have to ask why the local authorities were so naïve as to cancel the celebration at the last minute. Anyone with any sense could have speculated the consequences of banning a big public gathering such as this one. In the case of Mrauk-U, the event was quite significant as far as Arakanese history, pride and cultural identity. The venue was the site of the old palace, the powerhouse of the Kingdom of Mrauk-U, a Rakhine dynasty from the 15th to 18th centuries. It is an event to remind the Arakanese that they were once independent until they ceded their sovereignty to the invading Bamar in 1785. It was no wonder that any attempt to interrupt this event faced serious backlash.
Another thing to note is crowd control by the security forces. The government said the protestors rampaged the administration office and destroyed office property. It has to be asked why security failed to prevent them from entering the building. The European Union spent €10 million to provide the Myanmar Police Force with crowd management training including how to settle confrontations with the public without resorting to violence. The death of seven people in Mrauk-U last week proved these trainings were fruitless. The government has to answer whether security forces followed the proper procedures—by using tear gas, water or rubber bullets—to disperse the protestors who were barely armed, before opening fire, which should have been a last resort. Local police said they used rubber bullets. But witnesses and wounded people recalled differently.
In a larger context, in the eyes of the majority of Arakanese people, it was the Bamar government that killed seven Arakanese people. The history has been inked. The already fragile trust that the Arakanese had with the Bamar has been shattered now due to the government’s mishandling of the Mrauk-U protest. Their mismanagement gives the whole ethnic Bamar population a bad name among other native ethnic people.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly said she was worried that the Mrauk-U case would have an impact on Rakhine State stability as there was talk of Bamar chauvinism and speeches that could potentially create a divide between Arakanese and Bamar people. Rather than being worried, she’d better send an independent investigation team as requested by people on the ground to find out and punish those who are behind those mishandlings. Make no mistake, how the Union government handles this case is now under the watchful eyes of other ethnic people who also feel a resentment of Bamar chauvinism as well.