Myanmar lawmakers have taken up the cause of farmers and villagers in two areas of the country where they lost land to huge government-backed projects, as the new political administration works on resolving a backlog of social and political problems.
Thant Zin Tun, a National League for Democracy (NLD) party deputy in the lower house, said Monday that he would ask the Naypyidaw Council chairman for amnesty for land-grab victims who are awaiting trial and who have already been sentenced for their involvement in protests.
The previous military junta, which ruled Myanmar for a half-century, confiscated farmland to build the planned administrative capital Naypyidaw about 10 years ago, but undercompensated farmers or paid them no money at all.
Some were jailed after they protested the move and demanded fair compensation. About 50 farmers are still behind bars, while nearly 500 others are now on trial, Thant Zin Tun said.
“We will work for these farmers to get their lands back or to receive the compensation to which they are entitled,” Thant Zin Tun told reporters at a court in Naypyidaw after he met with farmers who were standing trial.
“We will also submit our proposals [to parliament] to drop the charges against the farmers and free the ones who have already been sentenced,” said the lawmaker who represents Dekkhinathiri, one of eight townships in the Naypyidaw Union Territory, an administrative division in central Myanmar that includes the administrative capital.
The new NLD government under President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Sauu Kyi has released nearly 200 political prisoners, activists and students this month, fulfilling one of the goals of their pro-democracy administration.
“The current government has been releasing political prisoners,” Thant Zin Tun said. “These farmers were not charged or sentenced under political charges, but they are related to politics.”
“They had been working on their lands for generations to survive, and they didn’t receive proper compensation when their lands were confiscated,” he said. “Some didn’t even receive any compensation.”
Letpadaung copper mine
In a related development, two members of parliament from northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region pledged on Monday to work on behalf of protesting villagers who have lost farmland to the Chinese-operated Letpadaung copper mine project.
Thein Naing, a lawmaker from Sagaing region and Win Thein Zaw, a lawmaker who represents Salingyi township held a meeting on Monday with residents of from seven villages in Letpadaung during the first visit for both to the area.
“The members of parliament [MPs] met local people from seven villages who discussed their problems concerning the Letpadaung copper mine project,” said Ashin Arlawka, a Buddhist abbot from the region’s Sete village.
“The MPs promised the local people that they will do their best for them,” he said.
The large mine project operated by China’s Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. Company and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL), a Myanmar army-owned conglomerate, in the town of Letpadaung in Sagaing region has come under fire by local farmers who have long protested the company’s land takeovers in the area.
Wanbao spokesman Dong Yunfei told RFA’s Myanmar Service in February that the company would begin copper production in May, a month after the NLD came to power. The party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who also is minister of foreign affairs and the President’s Office, began its administration on April 1.
The mine is one of several Chinese-operated megaprojects under way in the Southeast Asian nation that have come under fire from locals because of expropriated land and environmental damage.
Aung San Suu Kyi had led a parliamentary inquiry commission on the Letpadaung project, calling for more transparency in its land appropriation process and for police riot-control training in the wake of a violent raid on protesters at the mine site in 2012.
In 2014, she accused the government of former President Thein Sein of ignoring the commission’s recommendations to improve conditions at the mine, saying these had sparked clashes that December between police and farmers trying to prevent Wanbao employees from fencing off land for the project.
The incident left one farmer dead and dozens injured.
In response to continued protests, Wanbao canvassed local villages in 2014 and 2015 and met with farmers one-on-one to try to resolve the issue, Dong Yunfei said.
Since coming to power, the NLD government has not made any public statements about letting Wanbao begin operations at the Letpadaung copper mine.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and San San Tin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.