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Some 150 villagers gathered on Tuesday morning in central Burma’s Irrawaddy division to protest a government scheme they say is preventing them from fishing in local ponds to earn a livelihood.
The villagers from Ma-ubin, some 25 miles west of Rangoon, are demanding the right to fish freely in local ponds which have been auctioned off to private operators, driving up the prices of fishing permits.
The protestors, from seven villages in Ma-ubin, are threatening legal action against a local operator near Kansu village. The operator reportedly leased the pond from the government for 2.1 million kyat (US$2,150) annually and subsequently doubled prices, earning a total 4.8 million kyat (US$4,920) by renting out permits to local fishermen.
“We are calling for the immediately return of fishing ponds leased out by the Fisheries Department and the District Administration to the public,” protest organiser Kyaw Min from Kangon village told DVB.
Kyaw Min said the villagers have been living in hardship for over 30 years due to wealthy private operators monopolising their fishing ponds, and pledged to continue protesting.
They say they have repeatedly raised the issue with the local authorities, the Fisheries Department and parliamentary representatives – and have staged a total of five legal protests across 30 villages in Ma-ubin over the past year — but it has been fruitless.
Sein Win, Ma-ubin’s lower house representative for the National League for Democracy said all pleas with authorities to resolve the dispute had fallen on deaf ears.
“Due to monopolistic expansion by operators, local villagers can now only watch the ponds from afar but cannot afford to fish and thus end up poor,” he told DVB.
“Since we ran in the by-elections [in April 2012] we have been calling [on the government] to give locals the right to fish in their local ponds while declaring natural creeks as communal fishing spots, but the way things are handled on the ground has yet to change.”
According to Kyaw Thet Oo of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Network, there are around 15 square miles of fishing ponds in the township and the villagers have been calling for some of them to be made communal.
Tensions between private operators and local fishermen in Irrawaddy division have been on the rise for months, with the former claiming to be losing money as more and more villagers want free access to their ponds. In September last year, two men were shot dead by local police in Kyonpyaw township during an altercation over illegal fishing.
Under Burmese law, fishermen are obligated to obtain licences to access all fishing ponds, even those which are deemed to be “communal” by the government.