Nine people were arrested after an unsanctioned march to raise awareness of the plight of internally displaced people in Myanmar was effectively blocked in Yangon's Tamwe Township on Saturday evening.
The hundreds gathered in front of the Ocean Supercenter at one of the city's busiest intersections were accompanied by dozens of riot police backed by armoured vehicles.
Shortly after a core group of fewer than 100 protesters decided to stage a sit-in, police were able to forcibly clear the square in front of the shopping mall.
In the chaotic scene that ensued, onlookers and journalists fled to adjacent street corners as fights broke out and protesters and journalists were plucked from the crowd and loaded into police vans.
The list of students, activists and journalists arrested includes Khin Sandar, Myat Kyaw, Zay Yar Lwin, Oak Soe Paing, Ko Phoe Soe, Ye Htun Lwin, Htar Htar New, Pyae Phyo Naing and Tin Htut Paing – who was pictured on Facebook shortly after the protest being subdued by a man in plain clothes.
All nine were released on bail and charged under Myanmar's Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law Sunday after being held overnight at Mingalar Taung Nyunt Police Station.
Local residents reported seeing security forces enter the area surrounding the Ocean Supercenter in the early afternoon to prepare for the protest scheduled for 5 pm that a group simply calling itself Public Peace Movement had one day earlier received an official letter of denial for.
Three female activists – Thinzar Shunlei Yi, 26, Shar Ya Mone, 25 and Ei Ei Moe, 29 – who played a key role in organising the ill-fated march had personally delivered letters of intention on the previous day to police stations in five townships they planned to pass through.
Despite the organisers' actions to notify authorities, they face a November 2017 blanket ban on protests in 11 Yangon townships that cites concerns about traffic disturbances and has effectively blocked all efforts at lawful peaceful assembly in the city center.
According to Thinzar Shunlei Yi, her and the two aforementioned organisers had planned to leave the area after speaking and were led away just before police took decisive physical action against protesters.
Although no serious injuries appeared to result from the clearance efforts, one journalist with Yangon-based Kumudra said his lip had been split by a shield while photographing two journalists being loaded into a police van.
“Two policeman tried to stop me, and a higher level officer told the lower ranks to push the photographers out of the way,” Aung Lay, 22, said.
Following the protest, accounts of plainclothes agitators and counter-protesters have circulated widely on social media.
“There were nearly 100 people waiting outside and shooting photographs and not joining us or cheering and looking for targets. We are not familiar with their faces,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi said.
In a statement issued Sunday, the Embassy of Sweden said, “The Embassy is particularly concerned about credible reports that unknown civilians used violence against the protesters, without interventions from the police, and despite the fact that the protesters had agreed to disperse and leave the location.”
Only minutes before speakers took up megaphones to voice their demands for an end to fighting in northern Myanmar and increased access for aid groups, one man not familiar to organisers was able to draw a large group away from the square when he raised up a cardboard sign with painted red script.
An approximated translation of the slang-heavy sign reads, “Tell me the reason why you're getting involved in this Muse issue. Is it because you're targeting the civilians or the military? Elaborate on your anti-war movement,” referencing a Ta'ang National Liberation Army attack on the major Shan State hub bordering China's Yunnan Province staged the same morning that left at least 19 people dead.
This apparent counter-protest resulted in a large group being drawn onto Shwegondaing Road traveling west from Ocean Supercenter, and police quickly moved to barricade either end of the road. Although they did not take action to clear the block where several hundred people had become cordoned off, this allowed police to then push forward and better seal off the square where the sit-in was taking place.
In a statement issued by Public Peace Movement shortly after the protest the group said, “The organizers negotiated with the township police officer that the crowd will disperse peacefully and the officer agreed with that proposal … By the time we started to disperse, the plain clothed, so called 'nationalists', forcefully beat us and arrest us violently.”
Before being dispersed, the group voiced their intention to stage further peaceful protests in the coming weeks.