YANGON – Civil servants, even police officers, are risking their jobs to protest the military takeover in Myanmar, and one of the more dramatic examples of crossing that line also illustrates the deep roots of the country's ethnic conflicts.
In a small village in the eastern state of Kayah, 42 local police officers stood as one to declare their support for the protesters and refuse entreaties from a senior officer to return to duty. Residents streamed to the scene to protect the defiant police from arrest.
A video shot by a local man of Wednesday's drama showed how as the officer tried to cajole the group to return to the fold, a young policeman stepped forward to argue with him.
“If we go back with you it will be so different from what we desire,” said the younger man. “That’s why we have decided not to go with you.”
“Do you all agree?” he asked his fellow resisters, who shouted back: “We agree.”
While The Associated Press did not independently witness the incident in Bardo village, the cameraman who filmed it provided a detailed and extensive description of what happened.
The group stood behind banners, one of which read: “We don’t want dictatorship.” In the course of the full video, they frequently repeated chants popular with the protest movement, calling for democracy.
The officer paced down the line of the recalcitrant men and women. “We are a team, a troop,” he retorted. “We cannot stay like this for long.”
He was met with three-fingered salutes in response, the symbol of resistance adopted from the pro-democracy movement in neighboring Thailand.
Then, as the two sides were at an impasse, local people arrived to prevent any attempt to force the police group into leaving in the custody of their officer.
A separate video posted on Facebook by the Progressive Karenni People Force — a network of local civil society organizations — showed how more than 100 people trudged along a dirt road to make their way to the isolated police unit.
The incident took place the same day an anti-coup march was held in the nearby state capital of Loikaw.
By Wednesday night, reports from the area suggested the defiant police officers were in hiding.
The trigger for their mutiny was the military coup last week that ousted the elected government of national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but its roots were in Myanmar’s tangled history of ethnic discord.
The defiant police are mostly, if not all, local recruits from the Kayah ethnic minority, also known as the Karenni, while the senior officer is an outsider representing the central government and military, which are both dominated by the country’s Burman majority.
Ethnic minorities have resented Burman control and struggled for greater autonomy at least since Myanmar became independent from British colonial rule. Kayah activists tangled bitterly with Suu Kyi’s government in 2019, when they sought the removal of an unwanted statue of Myanmar’s independence leader, Gen. Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father.
The protests against the statue were reportedly put down by police using water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas — the same weapons police began to use this week against protesters opposed to the coup that ousted Suu Kyi.