Police Arrest 14, Dismantle Protest Camp at Rangoon City Hall

By Yen Saning 23 December 2014

RANGOON — An encampment at the foot of City Hall was dismantled by police on Tuesday morning, as 14 land rights protesters from Rangoon’s Michaungkan village were arrested and charged for unlawful assembly and obstruction of a public walkway.

All of the accused have been released on bail and are due back in court on Jan. 6, 2015.

Police arrived at the site around 5:30am, when they woke the protesters and ordered them into vehicles. Municipal workers then began removing the makeshift tents that had been home to the demonstrators since Dec. 12.

Upon leaving the court, accused demonstrators told The Irrawaddy that 14 people were each charged with two counts of violating Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law.

Each received an additional charge of obstruction under Article 341 of Burma’s Penal Code, as the encampment blocked part of a sidewalk near the entrance to Rangoon’s City Hall.

Unlawful assembly carries penalties of up to six months in prison, while Article 341 stipulates a fine of 500 kyats (US$0.50), one month in prison, or both.

Tuesday’s eviction was the latest drama in the Michaungkan saga, an ongoing land dispute playing out on the steps of City Hall.

The villagers said that their farmlands were confiscated by the military in the 1990s and rented out for industrial agriculture projects. A group initially set up camp near the disputed property in late 2013, but they left the site within three days because authorities promised a speedy settlement.

When the Ministry of Defense announced in early 2014 that they would not return the land and would instead turn it into a veteran’s housing complex, the villagers took their occupation to the margins of Mahabandoola Park on March 24, and have since faced a series of eviction threats by local authorities.

On Dec. 12, the protesters set up a smaller encampment on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, where about 20 people had been living under bamboo and tarpaulin tents adorned with red signage bearing slogans such as “our land is our livelihood.”

On Monday, two Kyauktada police officers summoned five of the demonstrators to inform them that they would soon face obstruction charges for blocking the walkway. One of the five, Aye Mi, described the encounter to The Irrawaddy on Monday, explaining that, “we didn’t understand, but we were told we can be fined 500 and face one month in prison.”

To date, only one person—protest leader Sein Than—has been jailed for protests related to the Michaungkan land dispute, though as many as 15 could now face charges. Last week, activist Wai Lu—known mostly for his involvement in protests against the Letpadaung copper mining project—was arrested and charged with incitement related to the Michaungkan demonstrations.

Demonstrators at the camp denied that Wai Lu played a crucial role in their movement. Maung Maung, one of the villagers now facing obstruction charges, said that Wai Lu visited the site but played no further role.

“He just comes to give his support, like other politicians and organizations,” Maung Maung said on Monday, barely 12 hours before being ushered into custody himself.

This article was updated on Dec. 23 to add that the 14 demonstrators now each face two additional charges of unlawful assembly.