BANGKOK—Burmese farmers preparing to file a complaint with an international NGO to assist them in a land grab case have been threatened by the military, according to a group representative.
The farmer from central Magwe division said that on June 6, local authorities and members of the military offered them a mere 12 kyat [U.S. $1 = 990 kyat at the current black-market exchange rate] per acre in compensation for confiscating more than 4,500 acres of their land in 2005.
The amount of compensation proposed by the military is based on a property law issued during the British colonial period. Land in the area typically commands up to 500,000 kyat per acre.
Soon after appropriating the land in Natmauk township’s Uyamon village in 2005, the military leased it to farmers from outside the community at 30,000 kyat per acre.
"We were asked to sign a paper stating that we have received money from [officer] Soe Wai Myint, ID 44448. If we don't accept the money, we have to write an explanation and sign. [The soldiers] said they will then forward it to their superiors," the farmer said.
"We said we won't sign for compensation and will also not sign with an explanation. The local chairman of Uyamon village, Nay Lin Htet, then threatened us by saying, ‘Here we have witnesses, people with stars on their shoulder. It is you who do not accept it.’”
The farmer said they are unwilling to accept such little compensation and plan to file a complaint with the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Meanwhile, he said, the military has posted a sign on the confiscated land warning trespassers that they will face criminal charges under Act 144.
Land disputes common
The Burmese junta frequently confiscates land from the country’s peasant farmers to use for its own benefit.
According to the Narinjara news agency, an Arakanese media group based in Bangladesh, 10,000 acres of locally owned farmland were confiscated by the military in Arakan state’s Kyauktaw township after farmers were forced to sign an agreement stating they were willingly handing over their property.
If they refused to sign, the news agency said, they were told they would be relocated to a remote area.
According to the Belgium-based International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights report, several instances of land confiscation and retaliation occurred in Burma during the last few years as a result of contacting the ILO to assist in settling disputes.
On Jan. 23, 2009 a court in Magwe division sentenced labor activist Zaw Htay to 10 years in prison for assisting farmers to file complaints with the ILO after the military had confiscated their land.
Zaw Htay was found guilty of leaking “sensitive national information” after photographing land seized by the army for the report to the ILO.
The activist had first been detained in October 2008 and was tortured along with three other farmers inside an army compound before being brought to trial for the first time in December that year.
On Dec. 10, 2009, farmers Nyan Myint and Thura Aung, from Aunglan in Magwe division, were sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of “misappropriation” and “damage to public property.”
In 2007, the two farmers had filed complaints with the ILO over the confiscation of their farmland by Burma’s military.
Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director at the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, said that although as a labor watchdog the ILO does not specialize in land dispute cases, it has been willing to assist in certain situations.
"This isn't the first time farmers have approached the ILO for help in land confiscation issues. The reason is that it is an international organization based in Burma. [The farmers] don't really see any other recourse for them other than to approach them. Not that this is necessarily the mandate of the ILO, but that [the farmers] don't see any other option," she said.
"It has been a couple years now where farmers have said, 'There's an ILO officer in Rangoon who takes complaints on labor issues. This may not be a case of forced labor, but it is something related. We're farmers—we're laborers, but we're not even able to be laborers anymore.' In a very distant way, they are equating the ILO to their concerns about land confiscation and inadequate compensation."
A number of Burmese citizens have also been imprisoned in retaliation for seeking the ILO’s help in resolving the continued use of forced labor by the military junta.
The ILO on Sunday called for the release of six people who had been jailed for up to 18 months for filing a complaint with the agency and renewing criticism of the Burmese army.
AFP quoted Steve Marshall, liaison officer for the ILO in Burma, as saying there is no evidence of any change in attitude towards the use of forced labor by the military.
The 183-nation ILO’s committee on standards annually reviews Burma’s forced labor situation ever since it found the practice to be prevalent there.
In 2007, Burma’s military junta allowed the ILO to base an official in the former capital Rangoon to deal with complaints from victims.
The ILO’s presence in Burma, called Myanmar by the country’s military rulers, is governed by an agreement reached between the government and the UN agency concerning the appointment of an ILO liaison officer reached in 2002.
The agreement allows alleged victims of forced labor the freedom to submit complaints to the ILO liaison officer, who will then make a confidential preliminary assessment so that the cases can be investigated by the Burmese authorities.
Under the agreement, complainants are guaranteed protection from retaliatory acts.
Original reporting by Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.