RANGOON — A demonstration in Mandalay Division was talk of the town on Sunday, after an ostensible show of support for a senior USDP politician devolved into a food fight more reminiscent of a Marx Brothers film than a political gathering.
The rally, held in Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) hardliner Aung Thaung’s constituency of Taung Thar Township, condemned the Oct. 31 decision by the United States Treasury to sanction the lawmaker.
Although it was unclear who organized the protests, locals told The Irrawaddy that they had identified some of the demonstrators as USDP members, and said they were informed before the demonstration started that participants would be given a parcel of biryani for their troubles.
About a thousand people joined the rally, brandishing placards with statements of support such as “We oppose US sanctions against our representative”, “We love our representative” and “Our representative is a nice person”.
Trucks carrying takeaway Biryani packs and bottled water arrived and began to distribute food as planned, but the crowd quickly became restive after an announcement that the food would soon run out.
“They suddenly dropped the placards, nudging each other and fighting for the biryani,” said Aung Myo Tun, a resident of Taung Tha. “After that, the road was left with pile of garbage, broken placards and plastic bottles. At some places, rice grains from broken biryani containers were scattered everywhere. Later, some police and USDP members arrived to clean up the trash.”
Photos of the crowd discarding their signs and storming the truck were uploaded and shared by nearly 2000 people.
“We love U Aung Thaung, but we preferred the biryani most,” read one of the comments on Facebook. Another rechristened the subject of the demonstrations as “Biryani Aung Thaung.”
Others defended the actions of the demonstrators and criticized the drafting of the villagers for an act of political theatre.
“A plate of biryani costs around 2000 kyats [$US2], and most of the people there could not afford it,” wrote Htet Naing Linn. “Nudging each other for a free biryani is not a surprise. The USDP knows the weak points of the people and used food and money to gather a crowd in order to organize a demonstration for their own interests.”
The practice of recruiting demonstrators through food, money or coercion has a storied tradition in recent Burmese history.
During military rule, the junta recruited well-paid thugs to infiltrate or attack opposition and activist demonstrations, most infamously during the 1988 democracy protests.
In the 2003 Depayin massacre, a pro-junta group known as the Swan Ah Shin militia and members of the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association attacked the motorcade of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, killing at least 70 people.
During the Saffron Revolution in 2007, the Swan Ah Shin and thugs equipped with sharpened bamboo rods were reportedly given 3000 kyats (US$3), lunch and alcoholic drinks to attack, disperse and arrest crowds of protesting monks.
It has been alleged that USDP members are responsible for flashes of anti-Muslim violence in Shan State and Mandalay Division over the last two years.
Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper published a report in 2013 hinting at Aung Thaung’s possible connection to anti-Muslim riots in Burma. The report described the emergence of a new Buddhist militia known as the Taung Tha Army, and noted that Taung Tha “happens to be home to the notoriously hardline Aung Thaung.”
Aung Thaung has previously told The Irrawaddy that the report is nonsense, stating that he has never formed an organization and has neither the right nor the ability to do so.
When communal violence spread to Mandalay in June, residents reportedly complained that a highly organized group of thugs suddenly appeared to create the unrest. These accounts have yet to be independently verified.
Critics believe that the USDP will continue to use paid demonstrators in the lead-up to next year’s elections.
“The recent food fight in Taung Tha showed clearly that demonstrations and public rallies conducted to support the USDP use paid participants,” said Ashin Issariya, an ex-political prisoner and one of the leaders of the 2007 uprising. “They did this in the past, they are doing it now and they will do it in the future as well.”
“Since they have every single penny of the government at their disposal, there’s no doubt they will buy the support of people in the 2015 election,” he added.