RANGOON — Evicted former residents of Thingangyun Township have vowed to continue their sit-in protest in central Rangoon, despite an attempted forced eviction in the early hours Sunday.
A group of hundreds of people, who were kicked out of Michaungkan village by the Burma Army in the early 1990s and moved to townships on the city’s outskirts, set up their third protest camp last week. They have been demonstrating for more than a year to get their land back, but promises from authorities to find a solution to their demands have not been kept.
Hundreds of people have since March 24 been spending nights in makeshift shelters by Mahabandoola Park—which is surrounded by Rangoon’s High Court, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) building and the Sule Pagoda—and loudly protesting during the day.
Nwe Ni Than, a leading protester, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the protest involved about 300 people, many of whom are older women.
“Early Sunday morning, at 3 am, about 600 to 1,000 people came and destroyed our huts, roofs and bamboo walls in the protest area. They said they are from YCDC, but I don’t think they were all from the department. They might be [pro-government] thugs,” Nwe Ni Than said.
Nwe Ni Than said the crackdown happened immediately after YCDC told demonstrators they had 15 minutes to vacate their camp. Before the 15 minutes was up, men began violently tearing apart their shelters, she said.
“Because of this crackdown, nine people from our protest have been injured. One of them is 65 years old. He has a heart problem,” she said, adding that the man refused to leave the protest camp go to hospital. An ambulance from the nongovernmental Kyaw Thu Free Funeral Service is standing by in case the demonstrators need medical attention.
No one was arrested during the clearance, she said, but a number of the protesters fled. However, a group of protesters was still at Mahabandoola Park on Monday.
“There is nothing left to be destroyed by them. They [the villagers] will come again to protest tonight,” said Nwe Ni Than.
“We want the government to solve the problem soon and fairly. That’s our main request.
“Also, 28 protesters from our group have been charged with Article 18 since the second protest, we want [the charges to be dropped] too,” she said, referring to the article in Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Law that requires anyone holding a public gathering—including protests—to attain prior permission from the authorities.
The protesters first set up a camp at their former land just north of downtown Rangoon a year ago, and say the authorities have refused to deal with them fairly as a single group of former residents.
A second protest camp at the site in November ended after a promise to investigate the case from Aung Thein Lin, a ruling-party lawmaker and a member of Parliament’s Land Investigation Committee.
But the Burmese military has refused to give back the land, and has declared, in a letter to another lawmaker, that it plans to build homes for veterans at Michaungkan.
Wai Lu, an activist helping the land dispute protesters, concurred with the account that as many as 1,000 people arrived to break up the protest camp Sunday morning.
He said he hoped there would be negotiations with the authorities on Monday, but that YCDC had shown no sign of engaging with the 200 or so protesters who remained at the park.
Win Cho, an activist who has been detained several times in recent years for taking part in protests, said the authorities justified their actions by labeling the protesters illegal squatters. But he questioned the use of non-uniformed men to dismantle the camp.
“I believe that the YCDC destroyed the camp because the protesters were breaking municipal rules, but I wonder why so many people came there to destroy the huts. I have questions: Are they all YCDC employees?” he said.
The group’s previous sit-in camp was similarly attacked in November by thugs reportedly belonging to the pro-government Swan Arshin youth group.
Also on early Sunday, a separate protest camp in Tamwe Township in front of the Myanma Gone Yaung housing development—where former residents similarly removed from their land have been protesting since December—was also dismantled by YCDC. The protesters want compensation from the Wah Wah Win construction company that has built condominiums on their former land, and have also remained in place despite the attempted eviction.