Authorities in Myanmar on Thursday tore down a protest camp run by villagers demanding the return of land they say was unlawfully confiscated by the former military regime, arresting 14 and charging them with holding an illegal demonstration, according to state media and the group’s lawyer.
According to the official Global New Light of Myanmar, security forces broke up the protest camp in the eastern Yangon suburb of Migyaungkan where villagers had been calling for authorities to give back the land they say was taken from them by the country’s former junta in 1990 for redevelopment plans.
“Yangon City Development Committee on Thursday morning dispersed a group staging an illegal protest over [the Migyaungkan] land issue by setting up makeshift tents occupying a sidewalk next to Mahabandoola Park in Kyauktada Township in Yangon Region,” the newspaper said.
“As authorities concerned filed lawsuits against protesters at Kyauktada Township police station, respective courts charged protestors with Section 68 of Yangon City Development Committee Law and Section 18 of the law on peaceful assembly and peaceful procession.”
Myanmar’s Law on Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions is a highly contested piece of legislation that activists and rights groups say gives peaceful protesters heavy penalties and is used to silence activism instead of protecting the right to demonstrate.
Section 18 of the law, which was passed in 2011 as Myanmar began to emerge from decades under military rule, requires individuals to obtain a permit to demonstrate and allows the authorities to jail violators for up to one year and fine them 30,000 kyat (U.S. $35).
Section 68 of the Yangon City Development Committee Law prohibits people from erecting fences or structures on public land.
Robert San Aung, a lawyer representing the Migyaungkan villagers, said 18 people had initially been arrested Thursday, but only 14 were charged.
“Among the 18 people who were initially arrested, four were later released as they are only street vendors” who had been selling goods to the protesters, he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The remaining 14 people were charged under Section 18 and Section 68 of Yangon City Development Committee Law by the Kyauktada township administrative department.”
The dispersal marked the second time the villagers were evicted, following a similar incident in December when police tore down their protest camp at the gates of City Hall, which had relocated there after being based in Maha Bandoola Park for seven months.
Last week, fourteen activists—12 of whom were women, including a 68-year-old—were sentenced to six months in jail each for the earlier protest under Section 18, as well as Sections 143 and 341, or “unlawful assembly” and “wrongful restraint,” respectively.
Palm oil clash
In a separate development, 14 people are facing charges after farmers clashed with authorities Thursday over land confiscated by developers for a palm oil plantation project in southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region.
Yi Yi Htway, one of the farmers, told RFA the 14 had been charged with “trespassing” under Section 447 and “committing obscene acts” under Section 294 of Myanmar’s Penal Code.
“Because their lands were destroyed, the farmers removed a fence,” he said.
“Fourteen people were charged under Section 447 and 294 by Aung Kyaw Myint, deputy administrator of the area. Some students were simply standing alongside the farmers, but they were charged as well.”
It was unclear what offense the farmers had allegedly committed for authorities to charge them with committing an act of obscenity.
The villagers allege that the Malaysian-owned Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation Company (MSPP) obtained permission for its palm oil plantation project from the government in 2011 for 42,200 acres (17,080 hectares) of land in Tanintharyi’s Ka Wutt-Kawtmapyin area.
As of December last year, MSPP had cleared around 2,000 acres (810 hectares) of land and begun planting its palm crop.
According to the villagers, more than 40 families from Bawsanway village and eight families from Thein Byin village lost their land and plantations—including those for betel nut trees, cashew nut trees and coconut trees—to make way for the palm oil plantation.
Forced land confiscations by the government, military and private businesses are rife in Myanmar and among the country’s top rights violations.
Land is vital for farmers in Myanmar, who make up a majority of the country’s population. Those whose land has been taken have publicly protested.
A report issued in February last year by the Land Investigation Commission cited 745 such incidents in which the army, local government authorities and private companies had grabbed more than 500,000 acres (202,340 hectares) of land.
A month later, Vice President Nyan Htun had called for quicker returns of military-seized lands to their original owners, prompting the defense ministry to hand more than 200,000 acres (80,940 hectares) of land back to farmers, though local media reported that only half of it was returned to original owners.
Also on Thursday, activists from the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), Myanmar Social Development Network (MSDN) and 88 Generation pro-democracy group held a protest in front of Yangon’s Insein Prison calling on the government to honor its pledge to release the country’s remaining political prisoners.
“We are protesting for the release of all prisoners of conscience, as they have not received justice and do not receive equal treatment in jail,” Than Than Maw, the wife of imprisoned MDCF leader Htin Kyaw, told RFA.
Myanmar’s government maintains that there are no longer any prisoners of conscience in the country, but the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP-B) counted 177 political prisoners—including political activists, land rights activists and farmers—as of Feb. 10 this year.
The AAPP-B said at the time that a further 213 political activists were awaiting trial in the country suggesting “the continued arrest and imprisonment of activists in 2015 shows no sign of abating.”
Htin Kyaw has been sentenced to nearly a dozen years in jail on charges filed in nearly a dozen townships for distributing leaflets issued by the MDCF which falsely claimed that opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) chief Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic political leaders had formed an interim government.
The MDCF leader held a hunger strike for nearly two weeks in October against his reported detention in solitary confinement in Insein Prison, citing poor health as his reason for aborting the fast.
Thursday’s land disputes and protest demanding the release of political prisoners comes a day after London-based Amnesty International said human rights in Myanmar had backtracked in key areas in 2014 despite ongoing reforms in the Southeast Asian nation.
In its annual report on the state of global human rights, Amnesty slammed Myanmar’s government for severely restricting freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, imprisoning scores “solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights.”
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein failed to keep his promise to release the country’s remaining prisoners of conscience in 2014, it said, while protests against land confiscations and forced evictions were “widespread,” some of which were met with “unnecessary or excessive use of force” by security forces.
Also on Wednesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warned that Myanmar “seems headed in the wrong direction and needs urgently to get back on track” or risk squandering plans for the country’s democratic transition and long-term reconciliation.
Zeid cited a number of recent cases, including last week’s sentencing of the 14 Migyaungkan villagers, as examples of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest being curtailed in the country.
He also noted that while Myanmar had promised to end the era of political prisoners, the government now seems “intent on creating a new generation by jailing people who seek to enjoy the democratic freedoms they have been promised.”
Reported by San Maw Aung, Waiyan Moe Myint and Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.