By Thu Thu Aung
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon on Tuesday to disperse a protest over a statue of independence hero General Aung San that is opposed by members of the Karenni ethnic minority, police and a protest leader said.
Organizers said at least 3,000 people had gathered on the Union Day holiday in Loikaw, the capital of the mountainous eastern state of Kayah, also known as Karenni, despite being denied permission for the demonstration.
The unveiling this month of the Loikaw statue, depicting the general in gold atop a horse, has revived the trend of protests and 54 people have been charged with unlawful assembly, incitement and defamation.
"We are not objecting to the general's statue itself - we are demanding to implement his promises first," Khun Thomas, a leader of the Karenni State Youth Force, said at the protest, broadcast live on Facebook using smartphones.
"We are going to continue our protest."
Yanghee Lee, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, decried what she called the "violent police response to protests".
"The government of Myanmar must respect the right of all people to peacefully assemble and express their views about issues that concern them," Lee said in a statement issued in Geneva.
"Using disproportionate force against peaceful protesters is entirely unacceptable. The arrests must stop."
The father of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San was the architect of a Feb. 12, 1947 pact among ethnic groups which is marked by the annual holiday, but which, minorities say, was never realized after his assassination that year.
On taking power in 2016, Suu Kyi set her top priority as securing peace with ethnic armed groups, but slow progress and rising dissatisfaction with her party in minority areas poses a challenge for elections set for next year.
Participants in Tuesday's protest, the largest in a series that began in the state in mid-2018 after officials announced plans to install the statue, demanded that its top official and finance minister resign for failing to negotiate with them.
More than 10 people suffered minor injuries in the police effort to disperse the protest, Khun Thomas told Reuters. Images posted on social media showed circular wounds on the faces and torsos of young men wearing traditional tunics.
The police tactics were meant only to intimidate protesters with noise, police chief Win Htay said.
"The situation is stable now," he added. "The kids are just showing their opinion."
About two dozen people demonstrated in the commercial capital, Yangon, to support the Loikaw protests and oppose the building of statues of General Aung San.
"No more statues - give us food," read the slogans on signs they held up near the city's independence monument.
(Reporting by Thu Thu Aung, Aye Min Thant and Simon Lewis; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Ed Osmond)