Authorities in Pegu Division’s Padaung Township have apprehended six farmers involved in a land dispute with a company while seven more are facing arrest, local activists said, adding that Thaekone Township authorities have charged four farmers who protested against land confiscation by the military.
Since 2008, dozens of farmers in Kyarinn village, Padaung Township, have become embroiled in a dispute over the ownership of about 100 acres of land claimed by National Resources Development Company (NRDC), which gained approval of the Forestry Department to set up a teak plantation in a local forest reserve.
When tensions boiled over last year, farmers entered the teak project area and the company claimed farmers had destroyed teak saplings. Local authorities apprehended and laid charges against 13 farmers for cutting trees inside a government forest reserve, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment under the Forest Law.
The farmers were released on bail and have since attended several hearings at the court. On Tuesday, six farmers showed up for a court hearing and were arrested, while the judge ordered an arrest warrant for the other seven defendants, according to Min Min, a land rights activist from Prome.
“It is unreasonable that those farmers’ bails were cancelled and they faced sudden arrest,” he said, adding that the defendants had been scheduled to hear the verdict in their case next week.
Kyarinn village farmers said they had been living in the forest reserve since 1968, but they were forced to relocate in order to make way for a planned dam project in 1999. The project was never completed and authorities allowed villagers to return in 2001.
However, in 2008 NRDC was granted the right to grow teak and farmers lost 100 acres of land. They have been campaigning for access to their farms since, but to no avail, said local farmer Than Win, adding that villagers had explained their demands to the Pegu Division Forestry Department last year.
“We just want our lands back, so that we can plow it for our survival,” said Than Win, whose family lost about 30 acres of farmland.
In Thekon, another Pegu Division township, four farmers from Aungkone village were charged on Tuesday for protesting in a land dispute, said Thant Zin Htet, a land rights activist from Nattalin People’s Network from Nattalin Township.
“About 60 Thekon Township police, led by police boss Kyaw Aung, raided the protest camp of the farmers,” said Thant Zin Htet, adding that he was arrested along with three farmers and charged with Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law.
The article, commonly invoked by Burmese authorities seeking to suppress local activism, bans protests without prior government permission—an offensive that carries a maximum sentence of one year imprisonment.
Thant Zin Htet said he and the farmers were released on bail on Wednesday after paying about US$50 and now awaited further court proceedings against them.
The farmers had organized the protest, he said, “to demand the return of over a thousand acre of land grabbed by the military” in the year 2000.
A local farmer named Pauksa said some 5,000 acres had been confiscated by the Burma Army and was transferred to several companies, adding that the farmers were seeking the immediate return of 1,000 acres of this land that is not being used.
“We asked the authorities about the return of our lands a month ago, but we did not hear anything so we began our protest camp,” he said, adding that they had filed official complaints and tried to farm their land in 2013.
All across Burma, protests over land disputes have been on the rise in the past two years as tens of thousands of farmers are claiming the return of huge areas of land confiscated by authorities during decades of brutal military rule.
Since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government introduced political reforms, farmers have felt emboldened and protests against past land grabs have increased.
A parliamentary committee looking into land-grabbing under the former military junta has received complaints demanding the return of hundreds of thousands of acres of land. The Burma Army has promised to return land that is not being used, but it remains unclear how many farmers will benefit from these supposed steps by the military.
On Feb. 5, state-owned media announced that the military and the Home Affairs Ministry planned to return about 150,000 acres of land to communities nationwide. In Pegu Division, farmers are supposed to receive about 15,000 acres of land back.
Communities in Thekon and Padaung townships said, however, that they were kept in the dark about the plans. “We asked the authorities about this, but they said they don’t know as they received no instructions from their superiors,” said Pauksa, the farmer from Thekon Township.