Myanmar Police Shooting Leaves Seven Buddhist Protesters Dead In Rakhine

Rights groups have condemned what they said was an "excessive use of force" against demonstrators in Myanmar.

Police killed at least seven Buddhist protesters and injured another 12 in the restive Rakhine state late on Tuesday (January 16). The area has witnessed increasing violence in recent months.

Around 4,000 people had gathered in the town of Mrauk U to protest against a ban on the commemoration of the fall of the Buddhist ancient Arakan Kingdom, which is today part of Rakhine.

Officials said that organizers had not sought the approval from local authorities for the gathering.

"The police used rubber bullets initially but the crowd didn't leave. Finally the security members had to shoot. The conflict happened when some people tried to seize guns from the police," the secretary of the Rakhine government, Tin Maung Swe, told Reuters.

The United Nations and rights groups have urged the country to respect people's rights and called for an investigation into the incident.

"We urge respect for the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and call for the security forces and demonstrators to act with restraint and to avoid further violence," the U.N. said in a statement.

Amnesty International's Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said: "Even if protesters were throwing stones and bricks, nothing can justify police apparently firing into a crowd of thousands. This is a clear case of excessive use of force in violation of the right to life."

The U.S. embassy expressed "deep concern for all innocent people affected by the violence", hoping "reason and restraint will prevail."

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Unrest in Rakhine

Rakhine has been ravaged by a military operation started last August, which the U.N. said may amount to ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar denied the allegations.

The Rohingyas are regarded as stateless people and unwelcome migrants from Bangladesh. They live in segregated conditions in Rakhine and routinely flee Myanmar due to alleged persecution.

More than 655,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since last August. The exodus began after attacks by Rohingya insurgents killed at least 11 people in Rakhine.

The military retaliated with what was described as "clearance operations" to identify and root out militants. However, the U.N. described it as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Myanmar's army has been accused of committing human rights abuses, including mass rapes and extrajudicial executions, against the Rohingya.

The army has strongly denied accusations of excessive force against the Rohingya, but U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said violence against Rohingya may amount to genocide.

Myanmar's de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced scathing criticism for her prolonged silence and perceived inaction to resolve the ongoing crisis.

Suu Kyi's power over the military is limited, however she has been criticized for failing to address the situation and publicly condemn the massacres. The leader refuses to use the word "Rohingya" in her public addresses, arguing it is too contentious for an already affected population.

In December, Myanmar indefinitely barred access to the U.N. independent investigator on human rights in the country.

U.N. special rapporteur Yanghee Lee said she had been scheduled to travel to Myanmar in January. However, Myanmar told her that it would not cooperate with her or grant her access to the country for the rest of her tenure.

Following Tuesday's killings, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter: "Having ethnically cleansed 650,000+ Rohingya, Burma shoots some of their former neighbors for protesting a ban on a local celebration."