Police in southwest Burma on Tuesday shot and wounded at least nine farmers who were among hundreds trying to take back land they say was confiscated by a private company without compensation, according to police and activists.
The violence erupted in a cluster of villages in Ayeyarwady division's Maubin township after about 300 to 500 farmers defied police warnings and moved to furrow some 500 acres (200 hectares) of land they say were seized over a decade ago.
Police fired at the crowd after the farmers attacked them with sticks and knives, a police officer told RFA’s Burmese Service.
The policemen took the action to prevent the farmers from taking over the land that had already been allocated to a private group.
The police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the farmers had violated orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code—a provision allowing authorities emergency powers to control public order that has drawn criticism from rights groups.
Twenty-six police personnel were wounded in the clashes and have been hospitalized, in addition to the nine farmers—five men and four women.
A farmer named Maung Soe said that police used batons to beat men and women in the crowd, who hit back at them.
“Although the police threatened us, we didn’t think they were going to shoot us. That’s why we didn’t move from the fields when they asked us to,” he told RFA.
The farmers were from Kundinelay, Latpangone, Adate, Papin, and Palaung villages in the Malatto group of villages in Maubin, some 35 miles (50 kilometers) outside the former Burmese capital Rangoon.
Police had been deployed in the area since last week when the farmers started clearing the land for cultivation, according to activist Win Choe, from the Guiding Star Association that is working with farmers in the area.
“On February 21st, the farmers started clearing the land to get ready to farm and 150 police came to the area the next day. There were 200 police the next day and 300 in the area today,” she said on Tuesday.
Some 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of land in the area that used to be rice paddies had been confiscated by a private company 10 years ago, with half of it bulldozed and turned into fishing ponds, she said.
Earlier on Tuesday, farmers and activists had been barred from a meeting with authorities on the land dispute that they had been invited to, Win Choe said.
The farmers say the land has belonged to them for generations and that it was taken illegally without any compensation.
Concern over land disputes
Land disputes have come to the fore in Burma as the country emerges from decades of military rule, with rights groups expressing concern about a potential “land-grabbing epidemic” in the country.
Protests in northern Burma’s Sagaing division over land that farmers said was being confiscated for a Chinese-backed copper mine in the Letpadaung mountains drew nationwide concern after a brutal police crackdown in November.
Analysts say many of the land disputes are not new, dating back to a period when the former military junta attempted to open up to investors in the early 1990s, while others are linked to fresh conflicts emerging as the former pariah state opens up to global foreign investment.
Reported by Moe Thu Aung and Win Naing for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.