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The prominent Rakhine nationalist politician Aye Maung was arrested on Thursday and is facing criminal prosecution after he gave a speech in which, according to state media, he “urged the people to take advantage of the weakness of the government and to march towards the goal of sovereignty.”
News of the legal action comes as the already-volatile situation in Burma’s westernmost state grew more fraught on Tuesday, when police killed at least seven protesters during what the government has described as a “riot” sparked by authorities’ refusal to permit a Rakhine commemoration ceremony.
Thousands of ethnic Rakhine descended on the local administrative office in Mrauk-U Township to protest the banning of an event marking the anniversary of the Arakan kingdom’s demise over 200 years ago, and police opened fire on the crowd after they refused to comply with orders to disperse.
Thursday’s edition of the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported that the Rakhine State government met on Tuesday to discuss the remarks by Aye Maung and a speech by the writer Wai Hin Aung at the same 15 January gathering in Rathedaung Township. The state-level cabinet “decided to open a file in accordance with the law against the men and others who were involved in organising the talk,” read the report.
According to the Ministry of Information, the two men will face charges under the Unlawful Association Act, as well as the Burmese Penal Code’s sections 505 and 121, covering incitement and “high treason,” respectively.
Aye Maung was arrested at his home in Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, at about 1 p.m. on Thursday, while Wai Hin Aung was detained on Tuesday evening.
“Wai Hin Aung was arrested at his house in Sittwe and taken to the Sittwe District police station,” said Khaing Kaung San, director of the Wun Latt Foundation, a local civil society group.
“He was arrested regarding the literary talk in Rathedaung Township,” he told DVB.
The Global New Light of Myanmar provided excerpts of Wai Hin Aung’s speech in which, according to the state-run daily, he appeared to endorse the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group that has been a thorn in the government’s side for years.
“All the people in [Rathedaung] Township have a duty for freedom from the servitude by Burmese,” he was quoted as saying. “Today is the time when the government is in political crisis, and this situation brings good advantage to us. Also, the right time for us to take armed struggle to gain our independence. All must participate in this struggle.”
DVB could not independently verify the authenticity of those remarks.
In an interview on Thursday outside his home prior to his arrest, Aye Maung appeared calm, cradling a baby and professing his innocence.
“The charges against us are not quite relevant to the talk we gave at the event [on Monday]. We just gave a talk based on theoretical perspectives of Myanmar’s political landscape,” he told DVB.
He criticised the government crackdown on the protesters in Mrauk-U, and called the incident a setback for efforts to achieve national reconciliation.
Ethnic tensions are running high in Rakhine State, where for years the state’s majority Rakhine Buddhist and minority Rohingya Muslim populations have managed an uneasy coexistence. The emergence of Rohingya militancy in October 2016 and a subsequent attack by the insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), on 25 August of last year has dramatically escalated the inter-religious volatility.
Representatives of Burma’s government met this week with Bangladeshi counterparts to discuss plans to repatriate more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled Rakhine State since the August attacks. The repatriation process is likely to be a major challenge for the Burmese government as it attempts to balance international pressure for the refugees’ dignified return with a local ethnic Rakhine population that largely sees the Muslim Rohingya as illegal interlopers from Bangladesh.
Aye Maung has consistently railed against recognition of the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic group in Burma and advocates strict adherence to Burma’s controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, including in this August appearance as a panelist for DVB Debate.
Condemnation of the police crackdown in Mrauk-U, meanwhile, is building. Local activists and international rights groups were quick to call for an investigation into the incident. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lodged denunciations of the police force’s handling of the situation, and a small group of protesters assembled outside the Rakhine State government cabinet building on Wednesday, bearing signs that called for the government to “take full responsibility for the [deaths] of innocent civilians.”
“Yesterday, the authorities violently cracked down on civilians who were peacefully protesting,” said Khaing Thurein, one of the protesters.
That assertion contradicts government accounts of the altercation, however.
“As authorities repeatedly asked the gathering through hand-held speakers to disperse, demonstrators launched stones with slingshots and threw bricks at security forces, and later allegedly tried to seize the weapons of two policemen,” read a report in Thursday’s Global New Light of Myanmar.
While the circumstances surrounding the violent confrontation may be in dispute, it is objectively one of the deadliest clashes to occur between police and protesters in years.
“The casualty count is high. Several people were injured,” Khaing Thurein said. “Such an act is an abuse of power. We cannot accept such acts that harm civilians. We are staging this protest to prevent this from recurring. The government has the sole responsibility for the bloody crackdown.”
Adding to the complex political and social dynamics at play in Rakhine at the moment, Aye Maung and the state’s dominant ethnic political party appear to have had a falling out in recent months. The veteran politician and ardent Rakhine nationalist Aye Maung, who was chairman of the Arakan National Party and is a sitting lawmaker in the Lower House, submitted his resignation from the party in late November.
Earlier this month, the ANP leadership announced that they would “suspend” him as party leader. Speaking at a press conference in Sittwe on 7 January, ANP general-secretary Tun Aung Kyaw said, “The party will allow a timeframe for [Aye Maung] to reconsider his resignation.”
He added: “In the meantime, the party’s central executive committee has decided to suspend him from his position as the ANP’s chair.”
With reporting by Wunna Kwanyo in Sittwe, Rakhine State