Workers Protest Lack of Fishing Rights in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Region

By Salai Thant Zin 10 September 2019

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Region—Fishery workers in Kyonepyaw and Lemyethna townships in Irrawaddy Region staged a protest against the regional agriculture minister on Monday in Pathein, the regional capital, over what they claim is an unfair distribution of fishing rights. 

In a longstanding practice that dates back to the colonial period, the rights to fish in lakes in Myanmar are auctioned off by the government to private businessmen on a yearly basis. 

Wealthy fishery owners have long monopolized the fishing lakes, with poor laborers generally working for a daily wage. 

But in recent years, fishery workers have formed cooperatives and started bidding for rights. This has been widely supported by local communities, as the increased income helps to improve living standards. 

Generally, authorities issue two types of permit. A Type 1 permit allows the holder to fish in a lake for one year, while a Type 2 permit is issued for one to three years and allows the holder to breed fish in the lake.

Cooperatives of local fishery workers in Kyonepyaw and Lemyethna townships urged the Irrawaddy regional government to let them operate one fishing lake in each of the two townships. However, the regional government issued the Type 2 permits for the lakes to rich fishery businessmen who won the tender last year, sparking a protest. 

“We submitted several requests last year and also this year regarding Sha Ke Lake [in Kyonepyaw]. But government officials did not make a field inspection, and simply accepted the false information submitted by their subordinates. We are protesting because the minister has failed to protect poor fishery workers,” Ko Hsan Nyunt, a fishery worker in Kyonepyaw Township, told The Irrawaddy.

U Tin Aung Win, the regional minister for agriculture, livestock, resources and environmental conservation, said the decision to issue Type 2 permits to the fishery owners was not his alone, but was reached at a regional cabinet meeting. 

“We have checked the findings of the Fishing Lake Inspection Committee. We found that the fishery business owners [to whom permits were issued last year] were in compliance with the rules and regulations. They also promised to improve the water resources and fish stocks of the lakes [if they were allowed to continue operating]. So, we had no reason to reject [their applications],” the minister said. 

The protesters denounced fisheries officials at various levels of government for favoring “so-called” fishery workers who are in fact wealthy businessmen. They called on the government to revoke the permits given to the businessmen, and distribute them to grass-roots workers. 

“According to the regulations for the Type 2 permits, fingerlings [young fish] must be put into the lake. The Kin Pun Chaung Lake in Lemyethna dries up in summer. How can the businessmen put fingerlings into a lake that will dry up? That’s why I said the regional government has failed to visit the sites and simply believes what is reported to them by their subordinates,” U Thet Zaw, a fisherman from Lemyethna Township, told The Irrawaddy. 

“As the fishery businessmen got [permission to operate in] those lakes, all the poor fishery workers will just have to starve,” he said. 

In each township, tender issues are handled by a selection committee comprising the township administrator, who serves as chairman, along with the head of the township Fisheries Department as the secretary, and two regional lawmakers, the township police chief, the heads of the Land Records Department and Irrigation Department, and five representatives of civil society organizations. 

U Ba Hein, the former regional minister for agriculture, livestock, resources and environmental conservation, resigned in 2018, and was succeeded by U Tin Win Aung, a former Agriculture Department director.

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