In an attempt to curb protests in Myanmar, the police on Tuesday, February 12th, fired rubber bullets into a crowd of several thousand demonstrators over a new and controversial statue, according to activists.
AFP reports that the statue, which caused an uproar in the east of the country, depicts Aung San, the father of de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, shown on horseback. It was unveiled early this month in the capital of Kayah state, regardless of the strong opposition it received prior to the event.
Aung San is widely respected by the majority ethnic Bamar (Burmese) population, and is seen as an independence hero for his role in the struggle against British colonial rule.
However, the general, who was assassinated before independence in 1948, is viewed less favourably among many ethnic minority groups, who see him as a symbol of Bamar domination.
As a consequence, several thousand people marched to the Kayah state parliament on Tuesday, only to be met with a blockade by the police in riot gear, as well as barbed wire on the streets.
After the rubber bullets were fired, about 10 people were injured, according to one protest leader, Myo Hlaing Win, who informed AFP over the phone.
"They attacked unarmed people," he said, before adding, "this should not happen under a democratic government."
According to images taken at the demonstration, medics were cleaning the wounds of dazed-looking protesters, many of whom were dressed in the local traditional red woven outfits.
This is not the first time that protests have erupted during commemorations of Aung San, the last occasion being in 2017 when the Suu Kyi-led government wanted to rename a bridge after him.
"We want to build statues of our own heroes, not of the General (Aung San)," Myo Hlaing Win said.
A peaceful approach was taken in the protests, as in they were planned symbolically and held on Union Day, a public holiday meant to celebrate the nation's unity.
On the other hand, the statues of Aung San are a flashpoint in a larger debate over autonomy.
In 2015, his daughter, Suu Kyi, swept to power during elections after nearly half a century of junta-rule, vowing to end decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups fighting over resources, territory, and local control of government.
However, since then there has been a lack of progress, with peace talks yielding no result or influence.
82 protesters have been arrested in Kayah state since last July, when plans for the statue were first announced. Most of those have been detained in the last fortnight.
If convicted, they could serve up to six months in jail, and the leaders could face up to two years with hard labour.
"These protests were peaceful and lawful," said CEO of Fortify Rights Matthew Smith in a statement over the weekend, calling for the government to end the crackdown.
"No one should spend any time in court or behind bars for exercising their human rights," Smith added.
Also, on Tuesday, several dozen protesters gathered in central Yangon in solidarity with those in Kayah state.
"Aung San Suu Kyi said she would bring peace," student activist Mu Zu Zen shouted to the rally in front of a monument to the country's independence.
"But now our people have been shot."