Promises Turn into a Statue. Unsettled Disputes Over a Statue of General Aung San in a Land with Untold History

Athan’s narrative report is about a statue of General Aung San in Loikaw and the dispute about it. In it, Athan presents its own research about the conflict with references to work done by the Myanmar Cultural Research Society. The report illustrates the historical and political background and the events unfolding around the erection of the statue. It further documents how Karenni activists were repeatedly charged under contentious laws restricting freedom of expression and how police forcibly cracked down upon their protests. While parties concerned reached an agreement about further steps, conflict resolution was at a stand-still at the time of publication.

Historical background

The report clarifies that British colonial powers and the last Myanmar kingdom had signed an agreement in 1875 that specified that both sides recognised a region that now lies in western Kayah (Karenni) State as independent. Following the Second World War, Karenni leaders were discussing whether to join a newly independent Burmese State. The British government, however, dissolved the Padaung Council, which discussed those matters, before they could form any conclusive decision. Instead, they formed another council, the United Karenni Independent States Council. At the same time, the British government also declared the amalgamation of three different Karenni states into a single entity. This entity, through the Karenni Union Council Conference, very quickly adopted fifteen resolutions including the right to freedom of speech.

During the Panlong Conference, held shortly after Burma officially gained independence, Karenni leaders only participated as observers and did not sign the agreement.

Reasons for objections

In March 2018, the foundation for a statue of the Burmese independence hero General Aung San was laid. At the time, a community of young Karenni activists objected to it for five reasons which were:

  1. Karenni (Kayah) State had a history of being independent from both British and Burmese rule.
  2. Karenni State did not sign the Panlong Agreement or officially join the Burmese state lead by General Aung San when Burma gained independence.
  3. There was still significant disagreement among Karenni whether to integrate with Burma/Myanmar.
  4. The promises of General Aung San for equality and self-determination had not been prioritised by the government.
  5. Lastly, because of their respect for their history, their national identity and interests of their country which was still on a fragile road towards peace, Karenni activists felt they had to object to a statue. It seemed more like a harbinger of Burmanisation than a support for interethnic friendship to them.

The Rise and Fall of the planning

On June 18th, 2018 an alliance of Karenni organisations sent a letter to the regional government requesting the cancellation of the erection of an equestrian statue of General Aung San. Since their letter went unanswered, they started distributing leaflets arguing against the statue in several townships on June 26th. A march through Loikaw was organised and properly announced for July 3rd.

Despite the announcement, police dispersed the protest. In its wake, sixteen young leaders faced charges under articles 19 and 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for allegedly not notifying the police 48 hours ahead. Fifteen additionally faced prosecution under sections 505(b) and (c) of the Penal Code for the distribution of the pamphlets and the denouncement of General Aung San.

On July 16th, youth leaders, the State government and two ethnic parties representing the ethnic armed groups held a first meeting. However, rather than calming moods, the State chief minister U L Phaung Sho threatened to call the army if incitement happens. The situation gradually escalated, as the report details, coming to a standstill by mid-2018. The young activists had announced that they would cease all campaigns unilaterally in order to avoid a further escalation of a fragile situation.

Tensions rise anew

In January 2019, however, a statue of General Aung San appeared in Loikaw without prior notice. An alliance of Karenni activists organised a sit in at the park where the statue was located on January 31st, 2019. The police disbanded protest. Twenty protestors were subsequently charged under Article 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. Again, the situation escalated with further protests and further charges under article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.

The conflict culminated in a protest march on February 12th, 2019. An estimated 3,000 ethnic Karenni people attended the march. Despite violent police efforts to disband it, the protest continued. The protest dissolved peacully only after negotiations with the State government yielded an agreement in the afternoon of the same day. The report details voices of some who attended the protest, including anonymous police officers, which are highly informative.

The agreement reached specified that the State government would drop all charges against the activists. A joint committee form to find a consensual solution for the statue within a month. During that month, either side would cease all demonstrations and campaigns.

Conclusion

The report finds the actors concerned found no consensual solution by the end of March 2019. It concludes that the State government did not step up to its responsibility to deal with the situation appropriately.

You can find the full story and more details in the full report:

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