Paung township residents protest against injustice in their communities

June 5, 2013

HURFOM: On 18 May, 2013 local people in Paung Township, Mon State, demonstrated against unjust activities alleged to be taking place in their villages. In the first permitted protest in the township’s history, residents accused township and village leadership of failing to protect the interests of local people. Amongst various complaints, protestors denounced extortionate electricity prices and alleged NMSP land confiscations.

Initially, township authorities had refused to grant permission for the protest. However, local people appealed to State authorities, who on 15 May overruled the township-level decision and authorized the demonstration under Law No. 1/93.

Over a hundred people, from 14 villages in Paung Township, gathered to show their disapproval of injustices in their communities. Demonstrators included representatives from Teakon, Kyoneka, Htanpin Chaung Kyi, Zin, and Kyar Bo villages. While walking through the centre of Paung town the crowd broke into chants of “Get rid of injustice, persecution, bribery, corrupt influences. Restore human rights.”

Protestors claimed that many people in Paung township had received unfair treatment at the hands of various culprits. The aim of the protest was to call on authorities, whether or not they were the perpetrators, to end all injustices. Nai Aung San, who led the event, explained “The purpose of protest is to demand the same rights for all local people. If our demands do not succeed, we will know that the authorities are not properly committed to democracy.”

One key complaint raised was how private businessmen have been making a hefty profit from Paung villagers over electricity meter boxes (used to control electricity in the home). The meter boxes, originally bought for 100,000 Kyat, are sold on to villagers for 1 million Kyat. In addition, a 100 Kyat charge is levied per unit of electricity used.

According to Nai Pone who participated in protest, unscrupulous businessmen initially quote a lower price, but then up their fee when it comes to the point of payment.

“First the electric runners [referring to businessmen selling meter boxes] told us that the meter box cost 530,000 Kyat, but later they asked for 1 million Kyat. We could not afford this and asked them if they could reduce it to 300,000 Kyat. Now, we are still demanding the lower price”.

Protestors also pointed to recent allegations of land confiscation. Nai Kyi Aye explained that in Zin village the New Mon State Party (NMSP), a Mon armed group, had been given permission from the Burmese authorities to take 3000 acres of land from residents. Parts of this land had already been cultivated, and it included various rubber plantations owned by Karen individuals. According to Nai Kyi Aye, some of this land was resold at 200,000 Kyat per acre and some returned to owners.

Nai Tala Nyi, an NMSP representative, gave the party’s perspective on the events behind these accusations.

“Since 2004 NMSP has been asking the government to use 3,000 Acres of land [in Paung township for cultivation]. However, this was not implemented until NMSP signed the ceasefire agreement [with the government in 2012]. After the ceasefire with the government, we [NMSP] went with the [government] Forest Department to check the land. The land was cultivated but the plants were not growing well. NMSP talked with the [land]owners who said that they wanted to stop working [on the land]. NMSP has already paid those who asked for money [in return for the land].”

He continued, “When we, NMSP and the government Forest Department, marked the land, the local people heard about [our plans]. They also saw that we were preparing a road [on the land]. After we took this action the accusations of land confiscation and burning arose. 12 people submitted cases in relation to Zin village. However, there are no plants on their land.”

According to Nai Tala Nyi, the fate of the land is still in review, “Although there is approximately 3,000 Acres of land [marked out], only 1,500 or 1,600 Acres of land can be used because most of the land is mountainous. We have not finished marking land yet.”

According to DVB News, Nai Hong Sa Boung Khine, the head of NMSP’s Foreign Affairs Department, has stated that the land included in this 3,000 Acres will be returned if the owners can show evidence that the land belongs to them. Claims are to be submitted to the NMSP office in Moulmein.

Regardless of truth behind allegations against both NMSP and electricity suppliers, a major theme of May’s protests was that, with complaints of injustice rampant in the area, villagers need government support to ensure that all such concerns are dealt with.

One protestor, Nai Kyi Aye, detailed, “We have already created a village union committee to investigate and seek justice on these issues. The government also takes responsible for observing and monitoring complaints.”

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