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Nationalist protest gets heated as locals push back

By Shoon Naing
The Myanmar Times
September 12, 2016

Tired of an outpouring of nationalist sentiment in their backyard, Bahan township residents shot back at protesters demonstrating against the Rakhine State Advisory Commission yesterday. Parkgoers at the Bo Sein Hman sports grounds heckled the gathered crowd, and in at least one instance observed by The Myanmar Times, a woman yelled obscenities at the demonstrators. A separate alleged incident led to a scuffle and the punching of a photographer covering the event.

Angry locals interrupted protesters’ speeches against the Rakhine State Advisory Commission yesterday. Photo: Naing Wynn Htoon / The Myanmar Times
Several hundred nationalists had assembled on the field yesterday to protest a perceived foreign intrusion into national affairs with the appointment of former UN chief Kofi Annan to head a commission for Rakhine State.

The monks and laypersons gathered around a makeshift stage where readings took place. Protesters held up signboards saying, “Kofi Annan’s decision, no need” and “No permission to make our internal conflict external”.

As one of the presenters spoke out against Mr Annan, a woman in the park began yelling, and cursing, back. Protest organisers and around 20 police quickly intervened. However, police refused to kick the woman out of the park as the protesters requested.

In another incident witnessed by The Myanmar Times, photojournalist Ko Myat Kyaw Thu from the Myanmar Pressphoto Agency was trying to take a picture of another woman speaking out against the demonstrators when he was hit in the face. In the chaos it was unclear who the assailant was.

“They asked, ‘Why did you take that photo?’ and then they hit me,” Ko Myat Kyaw Thu said. “I don’t know who hit me because it was a mess of people. I only know that someone hit me.”

Following the scuffle, demonstrators told the assembled media to leave the field.

Before the demonstration turned hostile, U Zaw Win, a protest organiser, told The Myanmar Times that the event had been called mainly to protest Mr Annan chairing the new commission. He said the head of such a sensitive team should be someone from Myanmar who understands the complexity of the issue, as well as the history.

“We are totally against former UN secretary general Kofi Annan leading the commission. It is a big concern because what he says will have huge influence over the international community,” said U Zaw Win. “Since he is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and also the former head of the UN if he says that the ‘Rohingya are really Myanmar people existing here as refugees’ the international community will accept that.”

However, U Zaw Win added that he would not have concerns about the commission if Mr Annan pledged not to push the recognition of Muslim Rohingya as an official ethnic group.

“If he stands on the side of Myanmar nationality, and doesn’t break up the unity of Myanmar as a country that is majority Buddhist and also doesn’t create a new ethnicity with the name ‘Rohingya’, we will support him,” he said.

The government-backed commission, which consists of six Myanmar nationals and three foreign citizens, last week conducted a two-day field visit to Rakhine State, touring both Muslim and Buddhist IDP camps.

Over 120,000 people, mainly Muslims, remain displaced in Rakhine after communal violence broke out in 2012 between Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim minority who self-identify as Rohingya but who are referred to as illegal “Bengali” immigrants by the majority in Myanmar. The camps remain a subject of major concern to rights groups due to the dire humanitarian conditions faced by residents.

However, Mr Annan emphasised during his visit that the advisory body is taking on a consultative – not decision-making – role, and will be engaging the concerns of all sides, including Rakhine Buddhist nationalists.

At yesterday’s protest, lawyer U Aye Paing, who self-identified as a “national activist”, told The Myanmar Times that event was held with the permission of township authorities, and was meant to foster ideas for a petition to be sent to parliament.

Last week, parliament shot down a proposal to remove international figures from the commission, which was created at the behest of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

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