Scores of demonstrators fighting a decades-old military land grab in the outskirts of Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon have defied government orders to disband, seeking written assurances from the authorities to resolve their dispute.
Following clashes with authorities over the weekend, officials have pleaded with the demonstrators from Migyaungkan village in eastern Yangon’s Thingangkuun township to leave their protest camp as the country hosts the Southeast Asian Games for the first time in four decades.
But the protesters, who say they were forced out of their homes when the military seized their land in 1991, are concerned that the authorities will ignore their demands if they oblige without any firm guarantees.
After a meeting with a member of parliament’s land dispute committee Tuesday, demonstrators said they would vacate their protest camp near the Myasaryanaye Stupa if lawmakers back up verbal assurances given so far with a formal promise.
“We have demanded a written promise to resolve our problem given in front of the media, politicians, and the people,” Nay New Than, one of the protest leaders, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We also want a time limit set on the promise, such as to resolve the issue within a month or a year. We will shut down our protest camp if they come and give us a written promise.”
She said so far no authorities had come to kick the protesters out of the camp despite a public notice issued by the Yangon regional government ordering them out by Monday evening.
Orders to vacate
The orders, which warned of a crackdown if protesters refused to comply, followed clashes that broke out Saturday after authorities sent workers to erect a fence on land next to the protest camp.
At least eight women protesters were injured in the clashes, with several of them taken to the hospital, reports said.
Hundreds of villagers have held recurrent protests this year, with some 300 marching through the township late last month carrying placards demanding the return of the land.
Protesters said that in Tuesday’s meeting with lawmaker Aung Thein Linn, a member of the Parliamentary Land Investigation Commission, he had asked them to temporarily disband the camp for the Southeast Asia Games, which formally begin Wednesday.
The 22-day event, Myanmar’s chance to showcase its transformation as it emerges from decades under military rule, kicks off with an opening ceremony in the capital Naypyidaw and includes competitions in Yangon and other cities.
Up to the government
Aung Thein Linn, former Yangon mayor and now a ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party representative for a township in the city, said that his commission had reported protesters’ concerns to the central government, but that any decision on resolving the dispute rests in the government’s hands.
“Only Union-level government officials can decide on this problem,” he told RFA.
During the meeting he had asked protesters to clarify their specific demands, such as for compensation or return of their land, he said.
“As far as I understand, the land that they want back is still empty and authorities don’t have any plans to build on it.”
“But government officials have told us that it is not easy for them to give the land back because it was taken legally and they would run into more difficulties if other people asked for the return of other land that was taken.”
He said he was “worried” about what would happen to protesters if they remained at the protest camp despite the orders to disperse, warning that they could face legal action.
Since the group stepped up their protests in October, several protesters have been held and sentenced to several months’ imprisonment under the controversial Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for demonstrating without permission.
Last week, protesters vowed that they were willing to die for their demands.
Protesters claim the seizure of their ancestral land forced them to relocate to fringe areas of the city, including to North and South Dagon Myothit townships and an area near the Bago Yoma forest in neighboring Bago region.
Reported by Tun Myint, Khin Khin Ei, and Khin Pyay Son for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.