Thousands of ethnic Karens rallied in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state on Tuesday, adding a demand that the government withdraw troops from their district to previous calls for justice for a woman shot dead by two soldiers in her home this month.
More than 4,600 villagers demonstrated outside the army outposts in the second protest this week demanding punishment for the killers of Naw Mu Naw, identified by the army as two drunk army privates who shot her in her home in Poloe Htar village during a scuffle on July 16 after one tried to grab a gold necklace.
The pair, who surrendered a day after the killing and confessed to the shooting, are being detained in an army prison in neighboring Mon state, the Myanmar army said after the incident.
The protesters, who represented 114 villages, demanded the withdrawal of four battalions of troops from the Maewai, Kayko, Wawmu, and Khuthu Htar military camps in Hpapun district.
“The presence of the Myanmar military battalions is harmful to the region,” said Saw Khan Htel, the head of Hpapun district, also known as Mutraw district. “It hampers local people’s activities and living. That’s why we want them to be withdrawn.”
Hpapun district is partly controlled by the rebel Karen National Union (KNU), and the presence of government soldiers makes local people feel unsafe because troops treat them as enemies, protesters said.
“They always view us as the enemy, although we are not,” said Saw Bi, a resident of Kataing Hti village who participated in the protest.
“They shoot and kill local people for no reason. They fire heavy shelling into the villages. That’s why we are upset.”
The protesters said five local civilians, including Naw Mu Naw, have been killed by Myanmar soldiers in Hpapun since January.
The protesters also said that the presence of military outposts near farms and trails they use daily increases the risk that they may be injured or killed by gunfire.
“This year, there have been more incidents of local civilians getting shot by the military,” said Naw Wah Ku Shee, a spokesperson for the Karen Peace Support Network, which comprises more than 20 Karen community-based and civil society organizations along the Myanmar-Thailand border. “That’s because of presence of military battalions in the region.”
Villagers have also reported incidents where soldiers from the outposts have fired artillery into farms, Naw Wah Ku Shee said.
“The people are protesting because cannot put up with them anymore,” the spokesperson said.
Though the KNU is a signatory to the Myanmar government’s 2015 nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), recent skirmishes in the area have been triggered by government soldiers entering KNU-controlled territory for road construction work.
As a signatory of the NCA — a truce signed by 10 ethnic armies in Myanmar — the KNU has requested that state-level Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC), which monitors the implementation of the truce, investigate the shooting of the woman and ensure justice is delivered.
Major Ae Do from the KNU’s Division No. 5 said the JMC has not yet responded to the complaint filed by the Karen force, but added that leaders are likely to discuss it at their next meeting.
But JMC official Matthew Aye said the body had not received the KNU’s complaint.
“This murder actually occurred, but we haven’t got their letter,” he told RFA. “Because we don’t have the letter and the official compliant, it is difficult to comment on it. Once we receive it, we will take action.”
RFA could not reach Myanmar military spokesmen for comment.
Major General Tun Tun Nyi, one of the military spokesmen, said on July 22 that the army would take action against the two soldiers under military law.
Naing Swe Oo, founder and executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a pro-military think tank, said it is unrealistic to expect the four battalions to leave the area on account of the crime.
“These battalions are stationed in the region for security and strategic advantages,” he told RFA. “Now the local people are making these demands based on their emotions resulting from a crime.”
“It is not a very realistic demand,” he said. “The demands to deliver justice and to convict those who committed the murder are more acceptable.”
More than 1,500 residents from 35 villages staged the first protest outside the four Myanmar military posts in the area on July 22, the online news journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Dissatisfaction among Karennis
In another sign that ethnic sentiments are increasingly turning against the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government, Karenni youths in neighboring Kayah state rallied locals to vote for ethnic political parties in the general elections slated for November.
They said the NLD has turned a blind eye to Karenni affairs and problems that the minority group faces, despite strong ethnic support for the pro-democracy party during election campaigning across the state in 2015.
Particularly at issue is the Myanmar government’s erection of a costly statue of national independence hero General Aung San in Kayah’s capital Loikaw in 2018 against the wishes of the Karenni public.
The statues of Aung San, father of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Kayah and other states have sparked opposition by ethnic minority groups who revere their own local war heroes and see the moves as a bid by the current civilian government to “Burmanize,” or assimilate, them under rule by ethnic majority Bamars.
“We had supported the NLD by voting for it until the end of the election, but when NLD came into power, the youth and others found it difficult to keep supporting it because it hasn’t tried to solve [our] problems,” said Karenni youth leader Nan Yi.
Mula Kawretti from the Kayan Women’s Organization (KyWO) said her group will support candidates from the Kayan National Party and Kayah State Democratic Party.
“We supported the NLD in the previous election with lots of expectations, especially with the trust that the NLD would stand for ethnics,” she told RFA, referring to the November 2015 elections which the party won by a landslide.
“Not only the KyWO supported the NLD, but so did all people and organizations. It is now opposite from what we expected.”
Naw Phaw Wa — a member of a technical support group called Lobbyists, Advocators, Innovators and Negotiator (LAIN) based in Loikaw — said local political parties know Kayah state’s situation better than do other parties.
“If these local ethnic parties were in parliament, the peace process that the government is working on would be more effective,” he said.
The NLD government is seen as having made lackluster headway on its core pledge to start a peace process to build on the cease-fire, a pact intended to end more than 70 years of armed conflict that has stymied multiethnic Myanmar’s political and economic development.
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