Chronology on the Statue Case in Loikaw, Kayah State
In this commentary, the Union of Karenni State Youth and LAIN Technical Support Group provide a chronology of events, outlining how arrests and the government’s handling of events have compounded rather than resolved political frustrations and inter-community understandings.
General Aung San is commonly known as the “independence hero of Burma”. His legacy is, however, looked upon differently by the Bamar (Burman) majority and the country’s ethnic nationality peoples. Whilst the Bamar majority consider him a hero for bringing their people independence, ethnic nationality peoples respect him for his promise to bring their people equal rights in a true union. This is a promise that remains unfulfilled to this day, a failure that goes to the heart of the current crisis.
After decades of conflict and suffering, Karenni youth are attempting to use democratic rights to achieve the pledges of autonomy, freedom and equality that Aung San promised at the country’s independence in 1948. Sadly, rather than delivering peace and federal reform, the National League for Democracy government is prioritising the building of statues to Aung San in Kayah State and other ethnic nationality lands. The local peoples consider this a misuse of public funds and an attempt to erase their own history, continuing a practice of downplaying ethnic minority cultures by a policy known as Bamanisation. Based on these concerns, a course of non-violent public actions, directed towards the state government, began in June 2018. The chronology is described below.
18 June 2018: Letter campaign
After news about the statue emerged, Karenni youth sent an open letter to the state government. They then started an information and letter campaign, demanding Aung San’s promise of autonomy and federalism instead of the statue.
30 June 2018: Government files lawsuits for defamation and incitement
The Loikaw General Administration Department (GAD) tried to deter young people from the campaign by filing law suits for defamation and incitement in each township under sections 505(b) and 505(c) of the Penal Code. The following were named in different suits: Dee De, Kawrio, Myo Hlaing Win, Khun Lah Bwe, Khun Thomas, Philip Soe Aung, Khun Francisco, Rosy Kyaw, and Carmela (a) Mi Gyi. There is no evidence that sections 505(b) and 505(c) were breached. All the information they provided was – and is – publicly available, and it is widely acknowledged to be true. None of the letters attempted to incite violence against the state.
1 July 2018: Application for demonstration in Loikaw
On 1 July, Karenni youth informed the police about their plan to hold a demonstration according to the law, but the police replied that the law required that a request is made 48 hours in advance.
3 July 2018: Government crackdown on demonstration in Loikaw
The youth conducted a demonstration according to the law, but the police cracked down. The police used tasers and batons, and over a dozen people were injured. The police then filed law suits against 22 people under section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law. Eight of these people were unidentifiable. The others were: Dee De, Myo Hlaing Win, Philip Soe Aung, Khun John Paul, Kawrio, Khu Thu Reh, Khu Thalay Peo Reh, Khun Bo Bo, Khun Barnard Bote, Lah Bwe, Saw Jornimin, Maw Moe Myar and Khun Thomas. Seven of those named were subsequently held in Loikaw prison for a month before being bailed. The accused then had to attend the court several times a month until the cases were dropped after further protests in February the following year.
Postponement of Statue
As a result of the tensions, the government stated that they would no longer be involved in the statue project, which would be temporarily suspended, and instead handed over to a committee of individuals and organisations that supported the statue. The committee largely consisted of NLD members and groups receiving donations from the state government. The committee promised public consultations and that a decision would be based on the public voice. At the same time, the state government issued new restrictions by an emergency declaration under section (188). This restricts demonstration areas but does not apply to the government for its events or activities.
28 January 2019: Statue erected
There was no public consultation by the committee, and the government brought the statue to Loikaw. As soon as youth leaders heard that the statue had arrived, they tried to speak to government offficials but they were refused.
21 Jan 2019: Sitting demonstration at statue location
Youth protestors attempted a sitting demonstration at the statue location, a public park known as “Ganderma Garden”. GAD officials read out an “emergency declaration under section 188”, stating that the garden is a restricted area. When asked why statue supporters were allowed to enter, they said that it is only a restricted area for those who do not support the statue.
1 February 2019: Police crackdown on demonstrators at Ganderma Garden
In a police crackdown on the sitting demonstration, around 20 people were arrested and charged under section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law. They were all bailed the same day.
2 February 2019: Government statue opening parade
The government and pro-statue groups conducted a statue opening ceremony with a march. Government departments and universities pressured their staff and students to attend. The pro-statue demonstration plan was sent to the police after the event with the date backdated. NLD central executive committee member U Myo Nyunt arrived in Loikaw, but would not meet with youth leaders to provide an explanation. Another sitting demonstration was therefore started in front of the NLD office in Loikaw.
7 Feb 2019: Crackdown on demonstration at Loikaw NLD office.
From 2 to 7 February, the demonstration continued outside the NLD office. On the afternoon of the 7th, the police cracked down, arresting 36 people and charging them under section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law. They all received bail at 11p.m. that night.
8 February 2019: 2nd demonstration crackdown at Loikaw NLD office
The police cracked down a second time after youth protestors returned to sit down in front of the NLD office. Ten people were arrested, including three members of the media. Seven people were charged under section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law and were bailed the same day. The number of Karenni youth facing lawsuits now reached 54 people. Statements of support for the protests began to increase from ethnic nationality and civil society organisations around the country.
9 February 2019: Application for demonstration in accordance with the law
An application for a demonstration on 12 February, Union Day, was refused by the police. Youth leaders pointed out that the government would be allowed to conduct an event that day in Ganderma Garden, the statue’s location, which would be a violation of section 188 for other local people.
12 February 2019: Youth demonstration
The government held its Union Day event early in the morning. Therefore youth groups continued with their plan to hold another demonstration. Around 7,000 ethnic nationality people assembled around the Ganderma Garden. Thousands more villagers were stopped by police roadblocks around the town. After protestors crossed barriers around the park, the police fired rubber bullets and used a water cannon, injuring 22 people. Demonstrators reached the statue compound but did not enter or damage it. They demanded that the NLD leaders U L Phaung Sho and U Maw Maw leave from the state cabinet; the statue must be reallocated; and all charges must be dropped against those arrested.
The government offered to negotiate that afternoon, and three youth representatives met with the cabinet. After an agreement was achieved, the demonstration was halted.
February 12th Agreement Translation
- Drop all charges against all youth and halt all further protests
- Manage the following process regarding the statue of General Aung San:
- Continue consultation and negotiations between the committees for and against the statue with equitable participation within one month;
- For the government to implement only according to the agreement between the two committees;
- The government shall include and inscribe General Aung San’s speech promises and Panglong Agreement, if verified and agreed by the two committees;
- There shall be no more pro or anti statue demonstrations or events in Ganderma Garden; the State hall adjacent to the garden may be used;
- The government must take responsibility for moving the statue of General Aung San to a relevant social service officer or concerned office if the government fails to implement the agreements between the two committees within one month.