Burmese police detained up to seven people, including a rights campaigner, and dispersed as many as 100 farmers Thursday after the group held a rare demonstration in Rangoon to protest the confiscation of their land—testing the resolve of the country’s new reform-leaning government.
Pho Phyu, an attorney who campaigns for farmers’ rights and who had been helping the group petition the government over their seized land, was taken by police to an undisclosed location, according to a friend.
“Vice police chief Tun Tun Oo is currently in negotiations with him,” Pho Phyu’s friend told RFA in an interview after the farmers had been made to leave an area in front of the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development in downtown Rangoon where they had held a peaceful sit-in.
“He was taken away by riot police under Tun Tun Oo’s charge.”
Between 60 to 100 farmers gathered to demonstrate in front of the government building and up to seven people were detained following the protest, international news agencies reported.
Police also confiscated the groups’ banners and maintained surveillance on the location of the protest after the farmers left the area. Officials said the protest had been broken up by police.
"They came here to protest because their farmland has been confiscated and they want their land back," Agence France-Presse quoted a security official as saying.
"Police asked them to disperse as it's not in accordance with the law."
The protesters from South Dagon and Syriam—towns located in the suburbs of Rangoon—said authorities had seized about 10,000 acres (4,050 hectares) of land owned by about 1,000 farmers, who were given only small amount of compensation.
They said they had been told by local officials that private businessmen would jointly work the land with the farmers, but the pledge was never honored.
Protests are extremely rare in Burma where, prior to historic elections in November last year, the military junta ruled the country with an iron fist.
Burma’s military crushed prodemocracy rallies in 1988 and 2007, leading Western nations to impose economic sanctions which have crippled the country’s economy.
But the new nominally civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, has increasingly relaxed restrictions on freedom in the country since taking power in March and released around 200 political prisoners earlier this month as part of a general amnesty.
Last month, police detained a man for holding a protest against a controversial mega-dam planned for the Mekong River. Authorities later announced a suspension of the project following large-scale public opposition.
Thein Sein has said he will work hard to raise living standards for the country’s millions of farmers by providing loans and price guarantees.
About half of Burma’s workforce labors in the agriculture sector, which produces nearly 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
But farmers commonly face evictions and lack the resources to fight them.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Nyein Shwe. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.