By MOE MYINT 18 January 2018
A leading Rakhine political party has vowed to launch a parliamentary investigation into a police crackdown on a crowd of protesters, including teenagers, that killed seven people on Tuesday night in Mrauk-U, a popular tourist town in northern Rakhine State.
During a meeting with residents on Wednesday evening, the leadership of the Arakan National Party questioned the police’s handling of the situation.
“Why was the death toll so high when there were several options available for handling the situation? We will raise the issue in parliament,” said ANP General Secretary U Tun Aung Kyaw. The party official promised local people the Rakhine State Parliament would investigate the incident to ensure justice for the victims.
U Tun Aung Kyaw criticized officials for failing to implement proper riot-control measures such as blocking roads with barbed-wire fences, and using teargas and water canons to disperse the crowd.
The government said on Wednesday that the actions of police during the riot would be investigated to determine whether they adhered to established rules of engagement. In the statement, the country’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi expressed sympathy for those who were killed and injured.
On Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of Mrauk-U residents took to the streets to protest the government’s ban on celebrating the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Rakhine Dynasty. The government said it had banned the annual event because the venue was a former palace that has been listed as a national heritage site.
Protesters marched to the district administrative office, where some threw stones and destroyed government property. Police fired warning shots but when the protesters failed to disperse, officers fired into the crowd, survivors told The Irrawaddy.
In a brief report on the incident, the Ministry of Information (MOI) confirmed that seven people had been killed. Earlier reports from witnesses in Mrauk-U, including people who offered assistance to survivors, put the death toll at nine, with most of the fatalities caused by gunshot wounds.
The government statement released late Wednesday evening said nearly 10,000 protesters marched to the administrative office and that around 4,000 people broke into the office compound after pelting security forces with stones and broken bricks, resulting in the destruction of office property.
“The mob was getting wilder in spite of many warning shots. So the security forces had to fire nearly 10 rounds into the crowd,” the release said.
In the wake the deadly shooting, police were out in force on the streets of northern Rakhine’s Mrauk-U Township. Residents of Mrauk-U remained angry over the deadly crackdown, U Tun Aung Kyaw said.
Senior ANP leaders, Rakhine Parliament speaker U San Kyaw Hla and several regional lawmakers immediately traveled to Mrauk-U from Sittwe upon learning about the casualties on Tuesday night. In the morning, victims’ family members and other Mrauk-U residents gathered at Mrauk-U General Hospital in order identify the casualties.
Mrauk-U resident Ko Khine, who observed bodies arriving at the hospital’s morgue, said he saw three police trucks pull up at the hospital compound and dozens of riot police being deployed there. He said the names of the victims had been confirmed by their families, adding that they were aged between 18 and 36. Authorities sent the bodies to Mrauk-U cemetery in the afternoon and funerals were due to take place on Thursday.
“Mrauk-U residents are downhearted at the moment,” he said.
U Tun Aung Kyaw said regional legislators met with senior township police officers and administrative officials to get detailed information about the incident. He recalled that township authorities had urged locals to protest a decision by authorities to ban celebrations of the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan Dynasty on Jan. 16.
A written order dated Jan. 15 and signed by Rakhine State Border Affairs Minister Col. Phone Tint went viral on Facebook on Wednesday morning. It stated that those wishing to celebrate the anniversary must apply for a peaceful assembly permit from the authorities in line with existing laws. Action would be taken against those who failed to do so, it said.
U Tun Aung Kyaw said, “We heard reports of that happening but could not get any testimony from survivors or rally participants. As you know, some of the wounded are in critical condition and cannot speak to us.”
Prominent citizens of the township, including Buddhist monks and party officials, held an urgent meeting on Wednesday.
Generation Wave, the Ethnic People’s Development Plan (EPDP) and other activist groups issued a letter condemning the indiscriminate killings in Mrauk-U and urging action against those officials responsible for mishandling the response to the riot. They demanded that authorities release details about the incident to ensure transparency.
The Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Arakanese armed group, released a statement accusing police of deliberately killing innocent civilians by using live ammunition. It demanded the Myanmar government take full responsibility. The letter reads: “In terms of this incident, ULA/AA will take serious action against those who killed civilians.”
The United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern over the incident, saying: “We deplore the loss of life and injuries that have been reported.”
The UN urged authorities to investigate the case to determine whether disproportionate force was used or any other illegal actions occurred.