Villagers in Magway Region have blamed a riverside clash that left at least 30 people dead on an inadequate response by government officials to a dispute over rich alluvial farmland.

By HEIN THAR | FRONTIER

THE SANDBARS of alluvial soil that appear each year in the Ayeyarwady River and other waterways are so productive that farming communities are prepared to fight to keep them.

That’s what happened on an island in Magway Region’s Yenangyaung Township known locally as myay nu kyun (sandbar). On July 23, an ugly melee between the residents of two nearby villages left 30 people dead, nine missing, and the Ayeyarwady River stained with blood.

The residents of Phaye Kyun and Kantha villages, who had previously been friendly neighbours, fought with machetes known as dah, as well as spears, sticks and slingshots over the 2.8 hectares (seven acres) of cultivable land on the island. After the fighting ended, 29 residents of Phaye Kyun had been pulled dead from the Ayeyarwady, and nine remain missing. A Kantha villager also died.

What grievances motivated villagers who had lived together peacefully for years to fight each other over 2.8ha of land? What was the trigger for their bloody confrontation?

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The island emerged from the river between the two communities around 1998. As it was initially closer to Phaye Kyun, which is located on the mainland just north of the town of Yenangyaung, Phaye Kyun’s residents began cultivating the land in 2003, according to local officials.

Crop yields from the rich alluvial soil are up to five times that of normal land, said Phaye Kyun resident U Bo Thein, who has farmed the land since 2016.

“You don’t need to use fertiliser; the soil produces genuine organic products,” he said. “For farmers, this alluvial soil is gold.”

Bo Thein said vegetables and flowers are grown on the island. “If all 2.8ha is cultivated, we can earn K90 million from the sale of agricultural produce,” he told Frontier.

The residents of Phaye Kyun farmed the island for 15 years, until 2018. A contributing factor to the dispute is that there are no documents that prove that residents of the village own the land that is submerged beneath the Ayeyarwady from around July to November each year.

U Zaw Win, head of the Department of Agricultural Land Management and Statistics in Magway Region, acknowledged that Phaye Kyun residents had farmed the land for many years but it was difficult to say they owned it because no official survey was ever conducted.

 Residents of Phaye Kyun village look out over the Ayeyarwady River towards myay nu kyun, a sandbar formed from rich alluvial soil that was recently the scene of a bloody fight between residents of Phaye Kyun and Kantha villages. (Thuya Zaw | Fr

Residents of Phaye Kyun village look out over the Ayeyarwady River towards myay nu kyun, a sandbar formed from rich alluvial soil that was recently the scene of a bloody fight between residents of Phaye Kyun and Kantha villages. (Thuya Zaw | Fr

Tensions began simmering between the two communities in August 2018, when a Kantha man built a house on the island. Phaye Kyun residents complained to the township General Administration Department office. They say that no action was taken.

“More and more houses were built on the island,” recalled U Myo Zaw Than, the administrator of Phaye Kyun village tract.

U Than Oo, his counterpart in Kantha village, located on Kyankaing Island to the south of myay nu kyun, said its residents had begun moving to the island after experiencing land loss because of riverbank erosion.

“The riverbank collapsed and we were forced to move to the island, otherwise we would have drowned,” he said.

Visiting Kyankaing Island, Frontier saw the threat that the village faced from erosion. Over the years the destruction of the riverbank has caused the loss of many acres of farmland, and homes, monasteries and pagodas have been forced to relocate. Those that remain are wedged in against the riverbank, facing an uncertain fate.

The riverbank was so unstable that it was dangerous to walk too close to the edge. In the water there were large trees that had toppled over when the soil around their roots had washed away.

Phaye Kyun residents say that in 2018 they wrote twice to the Yenangyaung Township GAD to complain about the situation, and also wrote to the Magway District GAD and the Ministry of Border Affairs. They sent the first letter on August 20 – just a day after the first house was built on the island.

Township GAD records show that officials travelled to the island five times during 2018 but attempts to end the dispute made little progress.

When it seemed clear that the government was not going to resolve the dispute, Phaye Kyun residents decided to take matters into their own hands. On July 13, about 100 villagers gathered on the island and began demolishing houses built by Kantha residents.

“It is true that we acted in breach of the law,” said U Than Htay, a former administrator of Phaye Kyun. “We tried to resolve the situation in line with the law but nothing happened and the villagers became dissatisfied.”

Kantha administrator Than Oo said a complaint was lodged with Yenangyaung Township police about the demolition of the houses but no action was taken.

Kantha residents say they were forced to move to the alluvial island because their land on Kyankaing Island (pictured) was lost to erosion. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

Kantha residents say they were forced to move to the alluvial island because their land on Kyankaing Island (pictured) was lost to erosion. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

Tensions escalated and on July 23, a group of Phaye Kyun villagers travelled by boat to the island with the intention of driving away the Kantha people, who launched a counter-attack.

“We were beaten like dogs when we landed on the island,” said Phaye Kyun resident Ko Nyein Chan. “We could not retreat, because of the river, and if we tried to climb up the riverbank, we were overwhelmed by our attackers, who beat us and chopped us with dah,” Nyein Chan told Frontier.

The outnumbered Phaye Kyun villagers were eventually able to clamber aboard their boat but it soon capsized, leaving 38 missing. Twenty-nine bodies were later pulled from the river. Myo Zaw Than, the Phaye Kyun administrator, said another 18 residents were injured in the fight.

Although the police and regional government initially attributed all of the deaths to drowning, on August 5 an officer from the Yenangyaung township police force told Frontier that a forensic investigation had revealed three people died as a result of injuries incurred in the fight.

“Our boat sank and our villagers died and they are entirely responsible,” said Ma War War Lwin, who suffered a nasty spear wound in the neck during the clash.

“We fought them because we did not want to abandon our land,” said Than Oo, the Kantha village administrator.

While the two communities blame each other, they also attribute the tragedy to the failure of government agencies to resolve the dispute.

“It is true that we are guilty of solving this problem outside the law, but I wonder if the government and administrative bodies are also culpable; they did not solve the problem and because of that many people died,” said former Phaye Kyun administrator Than Htay.

The 2012 Farmland Law provides for township farmland management boards, under the GAD, to designate which villages near alluvial islands have the right to farm them. It is not clear why the relevant board did not exercise its authority in relation to the dispute.

U Mang Kho Hao, the administrator of Yenangyaung Township, said there had been a plan to survey the disputed land in a bid to end the dispute. “But they could not wait any longer and that’s why this tragedy occurred,” he told Frontier.

Than Oo said the government had more than enough time to conduct the survey. “They [officials] did nothing for a year so the villagers solved the problem their way.”

A ditch near Phaye Kyun where the authorities hurriedly cremated the bodies of residents who were killed in the fighting on July 23 or subsequently drowned. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

A ditch near Phaye Kyun where the authorities hurriedly cremated the bodies of residents who were killed in the fighting on July 23 or subsequently drowned. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

At a news conference on July 25, Magway Region Chief Minister Dr Aung Moe Nyo blamed the bloodshed on the failure of the two villages to abide by the law.

An 11-member commission headed by U Myint Swe, the regional minister for labour affairs, was appointed to investigate the dispute. It was initially instructed to release its findings by August 5 but the deadline was waived when it became obvious that the investigation would not be finished in time, said a commission member who asked not to be named.

“We will investigate who led the fighting and who were the agitators. If it is found that the relevant departments failed to take responsibility or make a timely decision, action will be taken against them,” the commission member said.

Police have responded by filing cases against four Kantha residents for murder. Three other residents are facing several charges, including attempted murder and voluntarily causing grievous hurt with a dangerous weapon.

One Phaye Kyun resident is also facing numerous charges, including murder, trespassing and criminal intimidation.

U Than Kyaw Htay, a lawyer who specialises in land-related laws, said disputes over alluvial islands were common along the Ayeyarwady but he had never seen anything as severe as the July 23 incident.

“There are laws relating to alluvial islands, but the right decisions have not been made in this case,” he told Frontier.

Myo Zaw Than said the dispute had destroyed the friendly relations that had existed between the two villages and he worried about the future.

“Seven acres on an alluvial island is valuable for our farmers, but it is not more valuable than human lives,” he said. “Those people died because there was no government management in accordance with the law.”

TOP PHOTO: Fisherman Ko Htay Win Aung from Phaye Kyun village helped to recover the bodies from the Ayeyarwady River following the fight. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

By AFP

PYIN OO LWIN — At least 14 people have been killed in ongoing fighting Thursday between the Tatmadaw and the Northern Alliance who mounted a series of attacks, including an unprecedented strike on a military academy, that the Tatmadaw said was likely retaliation for massive drug seizures.

Ethnic armed groups have for decades fought against the military, and sometimes between themselves, for land and resources in Myanmar’s east.

Experts say the area is now the world’s largest meth-producing region, funding the complex web of conflicts.

Thursday’s brazen assault targeted Pyin Oo Lwin, a tourist town near Mandalay, that is also home to barracks teeming with soldiers receiving training.

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An AFP reporter at a police post, the site of one of the attacks, counted the bodies of seven soldiers and four policemen.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told AFP three more people, two soldiers and one civilian, had been killed and that fighting was “still ongoing”.

This brings the death toll to at least 14.

One of the five attacks targeted the town’s Defence Services Technological Academy, where military engineers are trained, the first-ever time the training centre has been hit. 

The military said rebels had fired 107mm rockets at the academy from a nearby hillside. Images from local media showing burned out cars and damaged buildings showered in debris.

The Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) claimed the attacks, saying they had acted in retaliation.

“The military launched offensives in our area so we are fighting to defend ourselves,” TNLA spokesman Major Mai Aik Kyaw said.

He also confirmed the attacks were coordinated with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Arakan Army (AA).

The AA is currently fighting the Tatmadaw in conflict-scarred western Rakhine State, but is in a tight alliance with the other armed groups.

“We assume they carried out the attacks because the Tatmadaw seized tonnes of drugs a few weeks ago,” military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said.

In July, narcotics police were met with heavy artillery fire when they launched a major drugs crackdown in Kutkai Township in Shan State.

Huge stockpiles of chemicals as well as millions of dollars worth of ice, the highly addictive crystalised form of meth, were seized in a single raid.

The “Golden Triangle”, a lawless wedge of land intersecting China, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos, has long served as a base for opium and heroin production.

A unilateral ceasefire in Shan State declared by the military in December is officially due to finish in two weeks, even though clashes with armed groups have continued.

China’s plans to invest in major infrastructure projects have added another dimension to the conflict with groups vying for control of increasingly valuable territory.

Correction, August 16: The first paragraph of this article has been amended to attribute the motive provided for the strike to the Tatmadaw.

By CLARE HAMMOND and KYAW LIN HTOON | FRONTIER

YANGON — Northern Alliance forces launched simultaneous attacks at five locations along a major highway in Shan State on Thursday, killing at least three police officers and raising fears of a heavy-handed response from the Tatmadaw.

At least three police officers were killed at a police outpost beside the Goktwin bridge in Nawnghkio Township on the Mandalay-Muse highway and five more were injured, according to local hospital staff.

Nearby, Northern Alliance forces reportedly destroyed an X-ray machine at a drug enforcement gate and a key bridge on the heavily trafficked route to China, bringing to a halt to overland trade worth billions of dollars a year.

Northern Alliance forces also fired rockets into the Defence Services Technological Academy compound in Pyin Oo Lwin, a strategically important town that hosts many of the Tatmadaw’s top training schools.

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A Tatmadaw statement on Thursday said troops from the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army – three members of the Northern Alliance – attacked five targets at 5.30am: the Defence Services Technological Academy, the Goktwin Police Station, a toll gate, a narcotics checkpoint and a military battalion.

TNLA spokesperson Major Mai Aik Kyaw told Frontier that the group fired rockets from outside Pyin Oo Lwin into the military academy. “We shot into Pyin Oo Lwin from [some distance] away. We didn’t get into the town,” he said.

Initial reports suggest that one civilian staff member was killed and another was injured, while photographs shared on Facebook showed damage to a building in the compound.

A member of a political party in Nawnghkio, who asked not to be named, told Frontier that Pyin Oo Lwin residents heard gunshots until around 9am. He said that at least 14 people been killed across Shan State, including two civilians, five police officers and seven Tatmadaw soldiers.

Frontier was unable to confirm these figures. The Tatmadaw True News Information Team and the Nawnghkio Township police station did not respond to phone calls.

Dr Min Zaw Oo, founder of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security a Yangon-based think tank, told Frontier that the attack on the military academy was probably intended to divert attention from the main target.

The main target was the Nawnghkio checkpoint, he said, a drug enforcement gate near the Gokteik Viaduct that contained an X-ray machine from Israel.

“That X-ray machine has been intercepting a lot of drugs along the route,” he said, referring to the highway from Mandalay to Muse, the most important trading point on the Myanmar-China border. “That was the target, and that was destroyed.”

The Tatmadaw said on Thursday that the attacks were partly motivated by revenge, after police seized equipment for producing methamphetamines – worth billions of kyat – in raids in July and August in Shan State’s Kutkai Township and Rathedaung Township in Rakhine State.

The Goktwin bridge near Nawnghkio was also destroyed on Thursday, severing the major road link to the Chinese border. Photographs posted to Facebook on Thursday showed trucks and cars backed up on the road.

Fighting was reported in Kyauk Kyan village near Nawnghkio until about 3pm.

The attacks come after the AA, MNDAA and TNLA warned the Tatmadaw in an August 12 statement to “stop all offensive attacks” in northern Myanmar and in Rakhine State.

“If offensive attacks are continued without the ending of occurring war [sic], the Myanmar Army will bear the consequences,” the statement said.

Conflict between the Tatmadaw and the AA in Rakhine and southern Chin states since January 4 has displaced about 60,000 people, according to figures released by the Rakhine Ethnic Congress.

The Northern Alliance claimed in the statement that hundreds of civilians have been killed in the Rakhine conflict, but this is difficult to independently verify due to restrictions on access to the area and an internet blackout imposed in nine townships since June 21.

The attacks have threatened to further derail a unilateral ceasefire covering northern Myanmar that the Tatmadaw announced on December 21, 2018, and later extended until August 31, following negotiations with several armed groups, including the three that led the recent attack.

Clashes in early August in Kokang and Ta’ang territory prompted the Northern Alliance to issue the August 12 statement. The groups said that the Shan State Army-North, the armed wing of the Shan State Progress Party, had also clashed with the Tatmadaw, and that more fighting could follow. The SSA-N could not be reached for comment. 

The Tatmadaw issued its own statement on Wednesday, just before the attacks.

It pointed to “weakness in the efforts for the development of the peace process including the process of finding a solution through dialogues” and warned against “applying any time-wasting tactics during the ceasefire term allowed by the Tatmadaw.”

Dr Min Zaw Oo told Frontier he believed the conflict could escalate. While the attack on the Defence Services Technological Academy compound caused only minor damage, it is likely to be interpreted by the Tatmadaw as an insult, he said.

“Pyin Oo Lwin is an area [the Tatmadaw] considers well-guarded, so if a shell lands there they would consider it an insult. I expect the Tatmadaw will retaliate in TNLA territory,” he said.

The symbolic significance of the attack meant the Tatmadaw was likely to respond with a “harsh punishment”, he added, even though the damage was minimal.

He said the Tatmadaw was now pursuing retreating TNLA troops into ethnic Palaung villages between Pyin Oo Lwin and Nawnghkio, where the armed group is believed to have support.

Mai Aik Kyaw told Frontier that the TNLA’s next moves would depend on the Tatmadaw’s response.

“Our attitude for now is as we stated on August 12. We cannot accept the actions that they [the Tatmadaw] have made,” he said. “Whether we make more attacks or not depends on their attitude.”

The Tatmadaw referred in its statement on Thursday to clauses in its December 21 ceasefire announcement, which state that ethnic armed groups are responsible for “smooth and safe transportation and the lives and properties of the people”.

The Tatmadaw would “prevent and respond as necessary” if this condition was violated, it said.

Correction, August 22: This article has been amended to attribute the number of people displaced by conflict between the Tatmadaw and the AA to figures released by the Rakhine Ethnic Congress.

By AFP

YANGON — A probe into the death of a gay Myanmar man which cast a spotlight on the marginalised community concluded he was “mentally weak”, findings slammed Wednesday by his heartbroken family who blamed bullying at work.

Ko Kyaw Zin Win, a 26-year-old librarian at Myanmar Imperial University, took his own life in June.

His final social media post displayed the mocking comments and photos from colleagues he said had forcibly outed him before making his life miserable.

The university apologised to his family and suspended three members of staff identified in screenshots.

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On Wednesday an inquiry by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission said it had concluded the university and its staff were not to blame for the death.

“Absolutely no evidence could be found he was bullied,” commissioner U Yu Lwin Aung told AFP.

He instead placed responsibility for the death on Kyaw Zin Win’s “mentally weak” state.

Kyaw Zin Win’s aunt had not yet seen the report, but said the commission was “wrong” if it denied her nephew had been forcibly outed.

“I repeatedly told them he was bullied,” Daw Mya Lay Ngwe said.

Kyaw Zin Win’s plea “not to be reborn” in a country “where superiors oppress those under them” was shared thousands of times on Facebook.

Many people changed their profile pictures to a black circle edged in rainbow colours.

The commission does not have power to instigate legal proceedings, yet rights groups hoped a damning report would have been a turning point in their struggle.

Same-sex relations remain illegal under colonial-era legislation and there is no anti-discrimination law.

LGBTQ campaign group Colors Rainbow said it had feared the commission might whitewash the suicide.

“This highlights how our current laws are failing us,” said co-director Ko Hla Myat Tun.

The university could not be reached for comment and it is unclear what will happen to the suspended staff.

In recent years space has been opening up for the LGBTQ community.

An annual LGBTQ festival was held in a public park last year for the first time and this year saw the country’s first-ever “Pride Boat Parade”.

Rights groups have often blasted the commission for lacking the political will and independence to protect abuse victims, especially when the military is involved.

By AFP

YANGON — A probe into the death of a gay Myanmar man which cast a spotlight on the marginalised community concluded he was “mentally weak”, findings slammed Wednesday by his heartbroken family who blamed bullying at work.

Ko Kyaw Zin Win, a 26-year-old librarian at Myanmar Imperial University, took his own life in June.

His final social media post displayed the mocking comments and photos from colleagues he said had forcibly outed him before making his life miserable.

The university apologised to his family and suspended three members of staff identified in screenshots.

On Wednesday an inquiry by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission said it had concluded the university and its staff were not to blame for the death.

“Absolutely no evidence could be found he was bullied,” commissioner U Yu Lwin Aung told AFP.

He instead placed responsibility for the death on Kyaw Zin Win’s “mentally weak” state.

Kyaw Zin Win’s aunt had not yet seen the report, but said the commission was “wrong” if it denied her nephew had been forcibly outed.

“I repeatedly told them he was bullied,” Daw Mya Lay Ngwe said.

Kyaw Zin Win’s plea “not to be reborn” in a country “where superiors oppress those under them” was shared thousands of times on Facebook.

Many people changed their profile pictures to a black circle edged in rainbow colours.

The commission does not have power to instigate legal proceedings, yet rights groups hoped a damning report would have been a turning point in their struggle.

Same-sex relations remain illegal under colonial-era legislation and there is no anti-discrimination law.

LGBTQ campaign group Colors Rainbow said it had feared the commission might whitewash the suicide.

“This highlights how our current laws are failing us,” said co-director Ko Hla Myat Tun.

The university could not be reached for comment and it is unclear what will happen to the suspended staff.

In recent years space has been opening up for the LGBTQ community.

An annual LGBTQ festival was held in a public park last year for the first time and this year saw the country’s first-ever “Pride Boat Parade”.

Rights groups have often blasted the commission for lacking the political will and independence to protect abuse victims, especially when the military is involved.

Villagers in Magway Region have blamed a riverside clash that left at least 30 people dead on an inadequate response by government officials to a dispute over rich alluvial farmland.

By HEIN THAR | FRONTIER

THE SANDBARS of alluvial soil that appear each year in the Ayeyarwady River and other waterways are so productive that farming communities are prepared to fight to keep them.

That’s what happened on an island in Magway Region’s Yenangyaung Township known locally as myay nu kyun (sandbar). On July 23, an ugly melee between the residents of two nearby villages left 30 people dead, nine missing, and the Ayeyarwady River stained with blood.

The residents of Phaye Kyun and Kantha villages, who had previously been friendly neighbours, fought with machetes known as dah, as well as spears, sticks and slingshots over the 2.8 hectares (seven acres) of cultivable land on the island. After the fighting ended, 29 residents of Phaye Kyun had been pulled dead from the Ayeyarwady, and nine remain missing. A Kantha villager also died.

What grievances motivated villagers who had lived together peacefully for years to fight each other over 2.8ha of land? What was the trigger for their bloody confrontation?

The island emerged from the river between the two communities around 1998. As it was initially closer to Phaye Kyun, which is located on the mainland just north of the town of Yenangyaung, Phaye Kyun’s residents began cultivating the land in 2003, according to local officials.

Crop yields from the rich alluvial soil are up to five times that of normal land, said Phaye Kyun resident U Bo Thein, who has farmed the land since 2016.

“You don’t need to use fertiliser; the soil produces genuine organic products,” he said. “For farmers, this alluvial soil is gold.”

Bo Thein said vegetables and flowers are grown on the island. “If all 2.8ha is cultivated, we can earn K90 million from the sale of agricultural produce,” he told Frontier.

The residents of Phaye Kyun farmed the island for 15 years, until 2018. A contributing factor to the dispute is that there are no documents that prove that residents of the village own the land that is submerged beneath the Ayeyarwady from around July to November each year.

U Zaw Win, head of the Department of Agricultural Land Management and Statistics in Magway Region, acknowledged that Phaye Kyun residents had farmed the land for many years but it was difficult to say they owned it because no official survey was ever conducted.

 Residents of Phaye Kyun village look out over the Ayeyarwady River towards myay nu kyun, a sandbar formed from rich alluvial soil that was recently the scene of a bloody fight between residents of Phaye Kyun and Kantha villages. (Thuya Zaw | Fr

Residents of Phaye Kyun village look out over the Ayeyarwady River towards myay nu kyun, a sandbar formed from rich alluvial soil that was recently the scene of a bloody fight between residents of Phaye Kyun and Kantha villages. (Thuya Zaw | Fr

Tensions began simmering between the two communities in August 2018, when a Kantha man built a house on the island. Phaye Kyun residents complained to the township General Administration Department office. They say that no action was taken.

“More and more houses were built on the island,” recalled U Myo Zaw Than, the administrator of Phaye Kyun village tract.

U Than Oo, his counterpart in Kantha village, located on Kyankaing Island to the south of myay nu kyun, said its residents had begun moving to the island after experiencing land loss because of riverbank erosion.

“The riverbank collapsed and we were forced to move to the island, otherwise we would have drowned,” he said.

Visiting Kyankaing Island, Frontier saw the threat that the village faced from erosion. Over the years the destruction of the riverbank has caused the loss of many acres of farmland, and homes, monasteries and pagodas have been forced to relocate. Those that remain are wedged in against the riverbank, facing an uncertain fate.

The riverbank was so unstable that it was dangerous to walk too close to the edge. In the water there were large trees that had toppled over when the soil around their roots had washed away.

Phaye Kyun residents say that in 2018 they wrote twice to the Yenangyaung Township GAD to complain about the situation, and also wrote to the Magway District GAD and the Ministry of Border Affairs. They sent the first letter on August 20 – just a day after the first house was built on the island.

Township GAD records show that officials travelled to the island five times during 2018 but attempts to end the dispute made little progress.

When it seemed clear that the government was not going to resolve the dispute, Phaye Kyun residents decided to take matters into their own hands. On July 13, about 100 villagers gathered on the island and began demolishing houses built by Kantha residents.

“It is true that we acted in breach of the law,” said U Than Htay, a former administrator of Phaye Kyun. “We tried to resolve the situation in line with the law but nothing happened and the villagers became dissatisfied.”

Kantha administrator Than Oo said a complaint was lodged with Yenangyaung Township police about the demolition of the houses but no action was taken.

Kantha residents say they were forced to move to the alluvial island because their land on Kyankaing Island (pictured) was lost to erosion. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

Kantha residents say they were forced to move to the alluvial island because their land on Kyankaing Island (pictured) was lost to erosion. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

Tensions escalated and on July 23, a group of Phaye Kyun villagers travelled by boat to the island with the intention of driving away the Kantha people, who launched a counter-attack.

“We were beaten like dogs when we landed on the island,” said Phaye Kyun resident Ko Nyein Chan. “We could not retreat, because of the river, and if we tried to climb up the riverbank, we were overwhelmed by our attackers, who beat us and chopped us with dah,” Nyein Chan told Frontier.

The outnumbered Phaye Kyun villagers were eventually able to clamber aboard their boat but it soon capsized, leaving 38 missing. Twenty-nine bodies were later pulled from the river. Myo Zaw Than, the Phaye Kyun administrator, said another 18 residents were injured in the fight.

Although the police and regional government initially attributed all of the deaths to drowning, on August 5 an officer from the Yenangyaung township police force told Frontier that a forensic investigation had revealed three people died as a result of injuries incurred in the fight.

“Our boat sank and our villagers died and they are entirely responsible,” said Ma War War Lwin, who suffered a nasty spear wound in the neck during the clash.

“We fought them because we did not want to abandon our land,” said Than Oo, the Kantha village administrator.

While the two communities blame each other, they also attribute the tragedy to the failure of government agencies to resolve the dispute.

“It is true that we are guilty of solving this problem outside the law, but I wonder if the government and administrative bodies are also culpable; they did not solve the problem and because of that many people died,” said former Phaye Kyun administrator Than Htay.

The 2012 Farmland Law provides for township farmland management boards, under the GAD, to designate which villages near alluvial islands have the right to farm them. It is not clear why the relevant board did not exercise its authority in relation to the dispute.

U Mang Kho Hao, the administrator of Yenangyaung Township, said there had been a plan to survey the disputed land in a bid to end the dispute. “But they could not wait any longer and that’s why this tragedy occurred,” he told Frontier.

Than Oo said the government had more than enough time to conduct the survey. “They [officials] did nothing for a year so the villagers solved the problem their way.”

A ditch near Phaye Kyun where the authorities hurriedly cremated the bodies of residents who were killed in the fighting on July 23 or subsequently drowned. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

A ditch near Phaye Kyun where the authorities hurriedly cremated the bodies of residents who were killed in the fighting on July 23 or subsequently drowned. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

At a news conference on July 25, Magway Region Chief Minister Dr Aung Moe Nyo blamed the bloodshed on the failure of the two villages to abide by the law.

An 11-member commission headed by U Myint Swe, the regional minister for labour affairs, was appointed to investigate the dispute. It was initially instructed to release its findings by August 5 but the deadline was waived when it became obvious that the investigation would not be finished in time, said a commission member who asked not to be named.

“We will investigate who led the fighting and who were the agitators. If it is found that the relevant departments failed to take responsibility or make a timely decision, action will be taken against them,” the commission member said.

Police have responded by filing cases against four Kantha residents for murder. Three other residents are facing several charges, including attempted murder and voluntarily causing grievous hurt with a dangerous weapon.

One Phaye Kyun resident is also facing numerous charges, including murder, trespassing and criminal intimidation.

U Than Kyaw Htay, a lawyer who specialises in land-related laws, said disputes over alluvial islands were common along the Ayeyarwady but he had never seen anything as severe as the July 23 incident.

“There are laws relating to alluvial islands, but the right decisions have not been made in this case,” he told Frontier.

Myo Zaw Than said the dispute had destroyed the friendly relations that had existed between the two villages and he worried about the future.

“Seven acres on an alluvial island is valuable for our farmers, but it is not more valuable than human lives,” he said. “Those people died because there was no government management in accordance with the law.”

TOP PHOTO: Fisherman Ko Htay Win Aung from Phaye Kyun village helped to recover the bodies from the Ayeyarwady River following the fight. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)