Burma/Myanmar — Approximately 5,000 Buddhist protesters gathered in Mrauk U on Wednesday, protesting a ban on their freedom to gather in remembrance of the Kingdom of Arakan, which ended in 1784. This generally happens every year but was banned this year by the government. Reports are currently conflicting — some say they tried to enter government property forcefully, others (including the police) say officers began to shoot when rocks were thrown.

According to Channel NewsAsia, a military spokesperson said that the crowd escalated from protesting to throwing rocks and erecting their Rakhine state flag — when they did not comply to the orders that told them to disperse, they tried rubber bullets. When that didn’t work, they opened fire with live ammunition. “Seven people were killed and 13 injured,” he said. He says that 20 police officers were wounded in the event, though there have been no descriptions as to the nature of their injuries.

Historically speaking, this is in line with the Burmese police’s escalation of force. With some ethnic minorities, they don’t typically wait for dispersal and they don’t even give verbal warnings. However, in larger populated, more central areas they make these attempts at quelling the protests before turning to lethal fire. One of the most severe examples of this was the 8888 Uprising in 1988, which left thousands dead.

However, reports are still coming in and the nature of the violence is still unknown. The police have claimed that the number of protesters was in the hundreds, not the thousands.

In this Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, image made from video, a man recovers from a head wound in a hospital after being allegedly involved in a protest confrontation with police during a local festival in the ancient city of Mrauk-U, Rakhine, western Myanmar. Officials say local police opened fire at hundreds of protesters angry about a ban on a local festival, killing seven people. (DVB via AP)

Mrauk U is a town of under 200,000 in Rakhine State, western Burma. Despite its proximity to the conflict with the Rohingya, it has been relatively untouched by violence until now. The Rohingya live in Rakhine state, but these protesters were not Rohingya, they were Rakhine, a separate and largely impoverished people.

Still, the surrounding areas have been rife with conflict for years, including the most recent push by the Burmese government against the Rohingya that has been described as “textbook ethnic cleansing” by the U.N. They have since claimed repatriation efforts, but those on the ground remain skeptical as repatriation efforts in the past have been exclusive to many of the refugees, which ends up changing little to nothing. All of these tensions no doubt bleed into neighboring areas and people groups.

The freedom to assemble is not a given in Burma, but that does not mean that banning a long-standing ceremony or tradition will come without a fight. Banning the right to gather is often indicative of other control measures used by the government to stifle ideas that may depart from the word of law or the will of the authorities. These protests will likely continue until policies are changed.


Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.