Burma/Myanmar — Mrauk U is a town in eastern Burma, in northern Rakhine State, where the violence with the Rohingya has taken place in recent months (though Mrauk U has been largely spared, until now). Somewhere between hundreds and thousands (depending on who you talk to) gathered in the town in remembrance of the Kingdom of Arakan, an old kingdom to which many trace their heritage. This is a traditional ceremony conducted every year, including last year. However, at the last minute, the Burmese government banned the celebration — but instead of everyone simply staying home, all they got were larger crowds, and now they were protests, not remembrance parades.
These protests escalated, and the police claim that rocks were thrown at them and several of their own were injured. After firing some rubber bullets and realizing the crowd would not dissipate, they fired live ammunition into the crowd and killed seven. There were reports of protesters breaking into an administrative office during the chaos. The locals have since dubbed it the “Mrauk U Massacre,” and most of the dead were teenagers.
The Burmese Police Chief Aung Myat Moe present at the incident described it as such:
The group then broke down the gate and took down the national flag … and hoisted another irrelevant flag. It looked like they raided the office. They destroyed vehicles, motorcycles, and windows. The police told them not to. There were about 30 policemen, but the mob had over 10,000 people. They tried to steal weapons from the policemen, so the police fired into the air. [Which did not disperse the protesters] We used 12-gauge pump-action shotguns to fire below [the protesters’s knees] but we couldn’t avoid [fatally wounding them] as they were running toward the policemen.”
The government’s reasoning behind the ban was that it was taking place on a national heritage site. This would have been met with immediate skepticism, if not anger, as this is a common and thinly veiled reason that the Burmese government has used time and time again in order to accomplish other, unrelated goals. In the west, they often stop the Karen people from building critical infrastructure (like hospitals) in entire swaths of their own land, because the government has officially dubbed their land National Forestry Land, and they restrict such commercial building there. This essentially prevents healthcare from developing in the entirety of Karen State, forcing the local people to find loopholes and other means of treatment.
Local news outlets indicate that the massacre was due to the Burmese police’s disdain for “ethno-nationalism” and “politically motivated comments.” Townsfolk were reported to have said things like “now it’s time for revolution to get free from Bamar’s slavery.” The ethnic Rakhine are typically at odds with the Rohingya Muslims, who have been the subject of much violence in the area from the government — though many have protested and stood for the Rohingya. Either way, that certainly does not mean that they hold the government in high regard. The tensions have been steadily rising in the area for years due to their relentless pushes against the Rohingya in the area, not to mention their long-standing animosity and tension regarding the Burmese conquest of the Kingdom of Arakan long ago.
To put it in perspective, five were killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Compared to the recent violence in Rakhine State, these numbers are low — but, like the Boston Massacre, the significance of an event like this can outweigh similar or higher numbers of people killed in other incidents. This may be viewed as an important event in Burmese history, as the violence here was not against Rohingya Muslims, but Buddhists that just reside in Rakhine.
However, to temper the national and international outrage, this is unfortunately a common occurrence by the Burmese government, and may also be treated with a “business as usual” attitude. Sources tell SOFREP that the ethnic minorities (of various religions) are not the only ones living in fear under the government, but that even those living in the central cities are often feeling the weight of the military dictatorship as well. Many hoped that Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to power in 2016 would be the change everyone needed, but it does not seem to have worked out that way.
Featured image: In this photo taken on Nov. 8, 2012, a Buddhist novice monk pray at ancient pagodas in Mrauk-U, Rakhine state, western Myanmar. Mrauk-U itself has been spared the bloodshed between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya that has scarred other parts of Rakhine state. It is calm, and for foreign tourists, safe. But just 10 kilometers (six miles) to the south, there is a village where civilians were reportedly beheaded in a massacre last month that saw women and children slaughtered, then buried in mass graves. Across western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the United Nations is distributing emergency supplies of food and shelter to terrified villagers who have fled burning homes. A nighttime curfew is in force. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)