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
The government and youth agree to:
- 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.
Signed by Khu Yi Reh, Leading Committee Member 12/02/2019
Signed by Khin Maung Win, Secretary of Kayah State Government 12/02/2019
15 February: Youth and pro-statue committee meeting date set
The youth team and the pro-statue committee set a meeting date for 17 February after the government formed a new committee for the pro-statue group, consisting of mainly NLD youth members. There was also a dispute over the ethnic composition of the delegations after the government required that the youth committee exclude people born outside of Kayah State. In response, the youth requested that, if the youth team is not allowed to include such persons (populations in Kayah State and southern Shan State are closely inter-connected), the discussions should only include members of the state’s recognized nationality groups. The government rejected this request. The government, however, did partially adhere to the first point of the 12 February agreement by dropping charges for defamation and incitement against those arrested the previous July, but only after the accused stated that they would withdraw their bail guarantees and go to prison if the charges were not dropped. This left over 45 youths still facing charges.
17 February 2019: Youth and pro-statue committee meeting
The two sides presented their arguments at the Empire Hotel. The youth committee demanded the reallocation of the statue but the pro-statue committee said they are not responsible for the statue. The pro-statue committee said “you need to talk to the government”, and left the room. This exchange was recorded live on Facebook. The committees then released two differing statements about the meeting.
20 March 2019: Negotiation process
The Union government delegation team, led by U Zaw Htay (director of the President’s office), conducted mediation at the Kannara Hotel in Loikaw. U Zaw Htay invited the ethnic armed organisation, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), to be present as a witness. During the meeting, the government said that it could not remove the statue but could inscribe Aung San’s promises underneath or add the statue of a local leader in the park. The youth team response was that the statue must be removed from the public park and put at the NLD office or outside of Kayah state. A joint statement was then released, agreeing to a further meeting to find a solution.
7 May 2019: Backdoor negotiations
Before the second meeting, the Zaw Htay delegation conducted backdoor negotiations. He explained that they are under pressure from the Union government and requested that local leaders intervene for the sake of peace and stability. His delegation raised other proposals, but left before the end of the meeting. With the departure of Zaw Htay, the KNPP and other mediators, tensions rose. Finally, the chief minister of Kayah State U L Phaung Sho said that he would try to find a way to relocate the statue but needed “more time”. The youth team agreed to this and, on that basis, another meeting was set for 14 May.
14 May 2019: The Government refuse to relocate the statue
At a meeting in the state government hall, the chief minister U L Phaung Sho made an opening speech, stating that the government will not relocate the statue and will protect the statue from any action. The youth representatives replied that they cannot continue dialogue for solutions if the government insists that the statue cannot be relocated. They also accused the government of breaking the promise “to seek a solution for relocation”.
Following the announcement, restrictions were tightened and the state government said that it would now allow demonstrations against the statue. The chief minister also initiated law suits under the 2017 Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens against six people who had signed a statement in March criticising the state government over its handling of the statue issue.
2 June 2019: Arrests begin again
The police arrested Khu Kyue Phe Khel (Karenni National Youth Organisation), also known as Gugu, in Pruso township and he was taken to Loikaw prison. Five other youths were on the list to be arrested: Dee De (Karenni State Farmers Union), Myo Hlaing Win (former Karenni State Student Union), Khun Thomas (Secretary of Kayan New Generation Youth), John Paul (MATA Loikaw) and Khu Ree Du (Kayah Liphu Youth).
20 June 2019: More youths sign the March statement
Following the arrest of Khu Kyue Phe Khel, nine more people (known as the second group) signed the statement criticising the state government. Later 87 people (known as the third group) and 55 people (known as the fourth group) also signed, with more people following. As of 20 June, 157 people had signed the same statement as the six arrested. Neither the state government nor police, however, initiated law suits or arrests in these cases. In the meantime, the police arrived in trucks to raid the homes of the friends and family of the five youths on the arrest list. In an abuse of power and over-action, the police threatened friends and family members.
21 June 2019: Youths arrested at Karenni National Day
The five remaining youths decided to come to the Karenni National Day ceremony to be arrested. The 144th Karenni National Day took place at Kel Tho Bo hall in Loikaw. It is a high-profile event for the state government to raid, but the police went ahead and did this. As soon as police were informed that the youth leaders were at the ceremony, more than 100 police gathered outside the building. The event organizer came forward to mediate, and the police agreed to make the arrests only after the event was over. When the ceremony was finished, the police read the notice ordering that the youths be arrested. The five made their final statements and peacefully went with the police. They were all sent to prison to await trial.
24 June 2019: Court hearings begin
All six youths were brought to court but only to hear a new date: 4 July. They are currently held in Loikaw prison.
* Union of Karenni State Youth, LAIN Technical Support Group
The UKSY was founded in 2007 as a network to support local unity and democracy-building. The aim was to bring young people together in a state divided by conflict. Its first joint campaign was for “Vote No” in the referendum on the 2008 constitution. Several leaders were arrested, but the UKSY continued to promote democracy, human rights and federalism. Following the 2012 release of leaders, the UKSY established a network office in Loikaw, promoting unity, peace awareness and the rights of indigenous peoples and farmers.
LAIN means “eagle” in the Kayan language. It was founded in 2016 by youth leaders to support capacity-building among local communities and civil society organisations. LAIN also focuses on peace-building, especially facilitation and research. Other activities include the small and medium development sector and business-plan training for local entrepreneurs.