Seven people have reportedly been shot dead and 12 injured when Myanmar’s police opened fire on Buddhist protesters in troubled Rakhine State.
An event marking the fall of the former Buddhist Arakan kingdom turned violent and officers responded with live ammunition, the authorities claimed.
Demonstrators gathered in Mrauk U (pictured) in the centre of the state to mark the end of the Arakan kingdom over 200 years ago.
Mrauk U, the spectacular former Arakanese capital, hosts an annual commemoration of the conquest of the kingdom two centuries ago by Burmese forces.
This year the authorities refused permission for the event to go ahead and in response an estimated 4,000 people reportedly surrounded a government building after procession. Secretary of the Rakhine state government Tin Maung Swe said the protest had not been registered with the police.
“The police used rubber bullets initially but the crowd didn’t leave. Finally, the security members had to shoot. The conflict happened when some people tried to seize guns from the police,” Tin Maung Swe told Reuters.
Ethnic minorities make up around 40 per cent of Myanmar’s population.
The Rakhine or Arakanese are one of the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. Their identity is closely connected to the once powerful Arakan kingdom along the Bay of Bengal, which was conquered by the Burmese in 1784. Arakan was once a Silk Road trading post.
The UN’s office in Myanmar called on the government to “investigate any disproportionate use of force or other illegal actions that may have occurred in relation to this incident”.
“We urge respect for the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and call for the security forces and demonstrators to act with restraint and to avoid further violence,” a UN statement said.
Tensions to the northwest of the state have risen since more than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border to Bangladesh since August 25 last year.
Concerns are growing at the UN and among humanitarian groups over an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate several hundred thousand Rohingya refugees within two years.
Bangladesh state media said the first batch of Rohingya would be sent back to Myanmar next week but NGOs said it remained unclear whether they were being forced to return against their will.
UN Secretary General António Guterres said the repatriation deal signed in Nay Pyi Taw on Tuesday needed to clarify whether the refugees would be permitted to return to their homes or live in newly built camps.
“The worst would be to move these people from camps in Bangladesh to camps in Myanmar,” he said in New York.
The deal included no role for the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, Guterres said, meaning it would be difficult to “guarantee that the operation abides by international standards”.
Historic Mrauk U. Picture credit: Wikimedia