Police investigate after 38 feared dead following violent Myanmar land dispute

27 July 2019
Police investigate after 38 feared dead following violent Myanmar land dispute
Villagers watch as bodies are recovered from the river in Magway following the clashes. Photo: Magway Region Fire Department

Magway police are investigating and are beginning to lay charges after dozens are feared dead following a land dispute that turned violent this week.

At least 25 people died following violence this week, a shocked regional MP said Friday at a press conference in Magway, as details were still emerging days after the brawl.

It is unclear what sparked the July 23 clash in central Magway region and whether all the deaths were from fighting or the sinking of a boat overloaded with people who were fleeing the violence. 

Magway region lawmaker Tint Lwin said there was a serious fight and 25 bodies had been found and 13 people were still missing, adding that authorities had been dragging corpses out of the Ayeyarwady River for the last two days.

Police say they will register cases in the village land dispute between villagers of Pha Ye and Kan Thar villages in Yenangyaung Township, Magway Region based on the autopsy reports of dead bodies found at the crime scene.

A responsible official from Magway Region Police Force told media that if bodies are found with stab wounds, this will be logged as a murder case. If the autopsy shows drowning, an inquest will be held.

Hundreds of villagers were involved in the clashes but no one has been arrested yet as authorities carry out post mortems and try to determine what happened, MP Tint Lwin said.

The clashes reportedly revolve around a disputed plot of land designated by the local authorities for the construction of a school, according to local media reports. However, complaints to the local authorities were made after villagers had begun building houses on the plot in 2018. 

The police are in the process of registering cases. In one case, a villager from Kyang Kaing Kyun village registered a case against a villager from Pha Ye village that included accusations of violence and murder.

“Both sides committed crimes and both sides registered case against each other. Currently a party has registered case and another party has not yet registered. The cases are in mischief, criminal intimidation and committing crime with common intent and so forth,” a responsible official from Region Police Force said.

Local media reports say the boat capsized as villagers along the river tried to leave during the clashes, while survivors said they were attacked with stones and knives. 

Police say about 40-50 people tried to board the motorboat that could only accommodate about 30 people and that the boatman was unable to start the engine and the vessel keeled over. 

Land ownership is extremely sensitive in Myanmar where huge swathes of the population work in agriculture. Many villagers lack documents proving ownership despite having worked on their farms for generations.

The military junta that ruled the country for almost 50 years until a democratic transition in 2011 has also been accused of rampant land grabbing.

Critics claim the National League for Democracy-led government has struggled to address simmering land disputes despite promises that they would tackle the issue when they came into power. 

Additional reporting by AFP