Myanmar authorities have arrested an activist who assisted protesters demanding the return of land they say was unlawfully confiscated by the country’s former military regime and charged him with “defamation of the state,” one month after his release from prison.
Wai Lu was charged Friday in Kyauktada township court in the commercial center of Yangon—a day after his arrest—under controversial article 505(B) of Myanmar’s penal code, which prohibits spreading statements that cause alarm or induce others to commit an offense against the state or the public.
Villagers at a protest camp in the eastern Yangon suburb of Migyaungkan told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Wai Lu had only provided humanitarian assistance to the group, which staged a peaceful candlelight vigil outside Yangon City Hall on Dec. 12 calling for authorities to return land they say was taken from them by the former junta in 1990.
“Wai Lu was not involved in our protest,” said Khin Maung Myint, who lives at the Migyaungkan protest camp.
“He had simply provided the elders from the camp with humanitarian assistance, but he was charged under article 505(B), and we feel that it is an unfair charge.”
Khin Maung Myint said members of the Migyaungkan protest camp went to Kyauktada court to show support for Wai Lu, but after arriving found that he had already been sent to Insein Prison, where he was being held pending trial.
“Ko [honorific] Wai Lu didn’t lead us to protest. We protested at city hall because we were ignored for nine months by authorities,” he said.
The villagers of the Migyaungkan protest camp say they lost their land under government redevelopment plans and have been occupying a protest camp near Maha Bandoola Park in the city center for more than 260 days.
The charges against Wai Lu follow his Nov. 11 release from Insein Prison, where he had served a three-month sentence for organizing an unlawful demonstration against a sudden increase in electricity prices in Yangon and for helping Moehti Moemi gold miners, who say their land was confiscated by a private mining firm.
Land to be returned
Also on Friday, Myanmar’s Land Utilization Management Central Committee announced in state-owned newspapers that the Ministry of Defense, other ministries and companies would return more than 300,000 acres (121,400 hectares) of confiscated land to the country’s farmers.
The committee, led by Vice President Nyan Htun, said 140,000 acres (56,650 hectares) had already been handed over to township Land Utilization Management offices, where farmers could go to find out if their land was on the list and submit certain documents to reclaim it.
But members of parliament’s Land Investigation Committee, which looks into land seizure cases, indicated that more needed to be done.
Lawmaker Pe Than said the army alone had confiscated more than 300,000 acres and suggested that each ministry announce how many acres it had confiscated and how many would be returned.
Lawmaker Min Thu said the committee members wanted to know if farmers had been compensated when their lands were confiscated, and whether the lands were used specifically for the reasons given when they were seized.
“If not, authorities should explain to farmers why they used these lands for different projects,” he told RFA.
“If lands are not being used, they should be returned to farmers. The Land Investigation Committee submitted its report with all these facts in parliament.”
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 late February 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, according to a September report by Eleven Myanmar.
In March, Nyan Htun had called for quicker returns of military-seized lands to their original owners.
The defense ministry responded by handing back more than 200,000 acres (80,940 hectares) of land to farmers, but only half of it was returned to original owners, Eleven Myanmar said.
Reported by Khin Pyae Son and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.