Around 1,000 farmers demonstrated in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing region Wednesday demanding that the authorities drop charges against comrades who had held protests calling for the return of land confiscated by the previous military junta.
Farmers in Kantbalu township held posters and shouted slogans calling on the government to drop charges against more than 300 who had also protested in May against the land grab, including 60 who had been convicted of trespassing on the disputed property.
The junta had seized their land covering 3,500 acres (1,416 hectares) and handed it to sugar companies in the 1990s, according to the protesters.
Protest leader Tin Naing Tun said they wanted the Sagaing Regional Court to overturn last month’s sentencing by a lower court of about 60 farmers to between three months and three years in prison for the May protest, in which they defiantly tilled land used by the sugar companies.
“We are protesting because farmers were detained and sentenced unfairly, as there is no rule of law for us,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Tin Naing Tun said that the group, which had obtained official permission to hold Wednesday’s gathering, “will continue our protest at the district and regional level.”
The Irrawaddy online journal quoted protester Aung Khaing, among those facing charges, as saying that the farmers had complained to the Kantbalu District Court about the sentencing of their comrades, but that their grievances went unheard.
“We just want justice, our lands back and the release of our friends,” he said.
The farmers had expected to gather thousands of people for Wednesday’s protest, which involved a march to the township government office, but heavy rains prevented many from attending, local reports said.
Roughly 240 other farmers are awaiting their verdicts in the trial over the May protest in coming weeks and many could face imprisonment, according to the Irrawaddy.
The Kantbalu farmers have been trying to reclaim their land for several years and have filed several complaints with authorities.
Land seizures by the army were widespread during the military junta rule stretching five decades until 2011.
After President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power following elections and began enacting democratic reforms, the Ministry of Defense announced it would return confiscated lands to farm communities across the country.
After the announcement, the Irrawaddy said, around 100 farmers in Kantbalu were told by local authorities that they would receive several acres of land each.
However, the companies which leased the land has reportedly refused to vacate their sugar plantations and only a few farmers received back some land, sparking the May protest.
Support for farmers
On Wednesday, Nyi Pu, a central committee member of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, called on the authorities to return the land to the Kantbalu farmers.
“They are already poor and their lives are getting worse … [Before the current administration] they couldn’t do anything to get it back as they lacked laws to protect them under the former military government,” he told RFA.
Nyi Pu said that the farmers were now pushing for the land they had been promised would be returned to them and exercising their right to protest under the new freedoms afforded by Thein Sein’s administration.
“They were happy because they were told that their lands would be returned to them but, actually, [little land was returned] and more farmers were … charged. That’s why they are protesting,” he said.
“In my opinion, their lands should be returned to them as soon as possible.”
Su Su Nway, an activist championing the cause of the farmers, said that while the government and sugar companies said that they had given land back to the residents after the decree by the Ministry of Defense, “it was only about one-third of what was confiscated.”
“[Also], when the farmers reported the confiscation, the authorities never took action against the offenders,” she said.
“That’s why the farmers’ anger is growing—it is as if the government is creating instability in the country.”
Aung Thein Lin, a lawmaker for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and a member of the parliamentary Farmland Investigation Commission—which was formed in 2012 to look into allegations of land grabbing—said disputes like the one in Kantbalu were caused by local authorities disregarding central laws.
“We have laws for these land problems and they could be resolved if the local level authorities approach them according to law,” he said.
“According to [the existing] land law, there is no right to lease these confiscated lands to others. If someone does it, it is breaking the law.”
Aung Thein Lin said that his commission had received thousands of complaints over land confiscation since it was formed two years ago and that the government had already resolved many of the cases.
“Some received compensation and others did not … We have to investigate each individual problem to decide whether the petitioner is right or not,” he said.
In December, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) accused Myanmar's military of grabbing land and hiding the seizures under a false veneer of legality, saying the actions cast doubt on the country’s commitment to political reform after decades under military rule.
Activists also say Myanmar is facing a scourge of land seizures by the government, private companies, and the well-connected as the former pariah state opens up to global foreign investment.
Some of the disputes involve residents displaced from their homes, while many involve farmers kicked off their fields.
Reported by Set Paing Toe and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.