Six farmers in central Myanmar were arrested on Friday after trying to plant crops to challenge army confiscation of their land, while in the east hundreds of farmers complained that a probe by authorities into a military-backed grab of their property was too limited in scope.
The two disputes highlight a growing number of conflicts over land rights in Myanmar, which has implemented significant democratic reforms since a nominally civilian government took power from the country’s former military dictatorship in 2011.
The six arrested in Sinbaungwe township, Magway division were among farmers from 13 villages who until last year had been paying the army for permission to work 12,000 acres (5,000 hectares) of farmland since it was confiscated by the military nearly two decades ago, local residents said.
But this year, the army branch in the area, which is working to build a weapons factory for the defense department, had refused to give the farmers permission to plant, even in exchange for payment.
Dissatisfied at being refused permission, the six farmers had gone to plant sesame on the army-owned land when they were arrested by members of the army branch and then held by authorities in Mangyipin-pu village, local residents said.
“They were arrested by a major named Kyaw Myat Thu … and he said that this land is owned by the army,” local farmer Hla Oo told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Hla Oo said the army had seized the land in 1996 without giving any compensation to local residents, who had lived there for generations.
“We farmers from the 13 villages had to pay 8,000 kyat [U.S. $9] per acre for permission to work on our own land and we had been paying for 12,000 acres each year until 2012,” Hla Oo said.
The dispute over the confiscated land is one of many rising to the fore as Myanmar emerges from decades of military misrule.
Under Myanmar’s former army junta, farmers had little recourse when their land was seized by the powerful government and military elite, but now that the country has begun pursuing democratic reforms, some farmers have been emboldened to make their grievances public.
Lawmakers have discussed plans to create legislation to protect farmers, and rights groups have raised concerns about a potential “land-grabbing epidemic” as the country opens up to foreign investment.
Analysts say many of the emerging 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. Others, they say, are linked to fresh conflicts emerging as the former pariah state invites new global foreign investment as part of ongoing reforms.
Attempts to address petitions from farmers have also been fraught with tension, as a group of farmers in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state who demanded the return of confiscated land found this month.
Complaint over land grab probe
In response to a request submitted earlier in May by a group of more than 100 farmers for the return of land confiscated by the army’s No. 353 artillery division, the military’s Eastern Command has ordered an investigation into lands claimed by 11 of the protest leaders.
But the remaining farmers say that the investigation is too limited in scope as only the 11 protest leaders’ lands are being considered for return while claims by the other farmers are ignored.
“The authorities are investigating only those eleven leaders’ lands,” local resident Ei Ei Linn said.
“Those protest leaders are likely to get their land back, but other farmers also want theirs as well because each of us cleared the wild land with our own hands.”
The group of 124 farmers had jointly submitted a request to the Eastern Command for an investigation into the land dispute on May 4.
Reported by Yadanar Oo and Kyaw Myo Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.