Villagers Object to Arakan State Parliament Speaker’s Land Use Project

By Moe Myint 27 September 2016

RANGOON – Speaker of the Arakan State parliament, San Kyaw Hla, has been accused of appropriating 10 acres of land from villagers in Ponnagyun Township in order to fill the area with Buddhist relics.

U Oo Hla Maung, the acting village administrator for Taung Nar in Ponnagyun, said that last week more than 240 residents signed a letter of objection delivered to the State Counselor’s Office, alleging that village administers had “forced [them] to sign” an agreement in front of local authorities.

The agreement, he said, was to support a project initiated by San Kyaw Hla, of the Arakan National Party, to create a plantation of revered Bodhi trees on the land and place 1,000 Buddha statues along the nearby railway line.

Villagers told The Irrawaddy by phone on Tuesday that the authorities had said that the Bodhi trees would transform the area into a garden-like atmosphere in which they could open shops to sell local products.

However, U Oo Hla Maung said he refused to ink the agreement, in accordance with the majority of villagers’ wishes, and together they decided to send the letter of complaint to the Union government in order to block the project. The villagers, he added, perceived San Kyaw Hla’s position as being comparable to that of Arakan State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu, making them frightened to object to his wishes, and leading them to go directly to the Union-level leadership.

He said that San Kyaw Hla inquired as to why he was “rejecting Buddha statues.”

“‘Are you not Buddhist?’ he asked me,” U Oo Hla Maung said.

The Irrawaddy contacted San Kyaw Hla on Tuesday, who was “shocked” by the Taung Nar villagers’ allegations. He said that the land had originally been confiscated by the military regime, and that he was returning it to the rightful owners through his project.

The Taung Nar villagers, he said, had been manipulated by some person or group behind the scenes.

“The time of forcing people to sign over land so that it could be seized is over,” San Kyaw Hla said, referring to the period of military rule, during which the practice of land grabbing was commonplace. “We will not force the villagers to collaborate on that project. We will do the project in different locations where other villages will deal with us,” he added.

The negotiating process regarding such projects has taken place in three villages since 2015: Taung Nar, Kyan Ta Lin and Kyan Khin.

San Kyaw Hla said that while he believes the project could be beneficial, he maintained that he would not force it to be carried out.

“There is no garden with 1,000 Bodhi trees and 1,000 statues elsewhere in Arakan State. And by growing trees it also environmental conservation. So we would like to implement that project, but we will never continue if they object to us,” he explained.

The Arakan State parliament would not need financial support from the state in order to complete the project, San Kyaw Hla added, pointing out that many local donors were ready to give Buddha statues and Bodhi trees for the gardens.