Over 200 people have been accused of trespassing on military land in the popular beach area of Chaung Tha in Irrawaddy Division.
The Burma Army’s Southwestern Command (SWC) has pressed charges against 209 people who claim to be the original land owners, according to defendants and their family members.
The local residents allegedly built fences and houses on about 13 hectares (34 acres) of land in Chaung Tha village that was transferred to the army about 18 years ago.
The police began investigating the case in 2012, and last month the SWC filed the lawsuit.
“We have been sued by the SWC, with Lt-Col Thet Htun as the plaintiff,” Than Own, the daughter of a defendant, told The Irrawaddy.
She said that in 1996 the then-administrator of Bassein District seized farmland and other property with coconut trees, and gave the SWC nearly 13 hectares to build an army guest house.
Local residents say they received no compensation for the land. They say they were paid 35 kyats (US 35 cents) for each coconut tree on their property that bore fruit, and 200 kyats for trees that did not.
Ko Ko Lwin, who is also facing charges, said the military offered to return land that remained vacant after the construction of the guest house.
“The army only built a few buildings, and about 15 acres [6 hectares] was left vacant,” he said. “That land was later covered by bushes and vines. When news about the army returning unused lands came out, we heard other people were preparing to take it, even though they had no connection to the land. To protect our property we built fences and houses there.”
In February 2013, the commander-in-chief of Burma’s armed forces acknowledged that the military was involved in land seizures and pledged to address the issue. He said the military would return farmland that had been confiscated in areas away from its bases.
According to a report submitted by Parliament’s Farmland Investigation Commission (FIC) in March last year, the Ministry of Defense had returned about 16 percent of more than 2,000 hectares of land seized by the army in Irrawaddy Division.
“The FIC recommended the return of unused land to owners, and the Union Parliament formally accepted the report,” Htun Htun Oo, a human rights activist, told The Irrawaddy. “The commander-in-chief also said the army would return farmland.
“But later the regional and local army units sued the land owners for trespassing and other charges because they were worried they would have to give up the land. Such practices should not have happened.”
The 1963 Land Acquisition Act nationalized ownership of all land in Burma, and since then confiscations have be widespread for various reasons—including project construction, urban expansions, establishment of industrial zones and building army bases.
The parliamentary land investigation committee, which has collected data in all 14 of Burma’s states and divisions, has received more than 6,000 land grab complaints since 2012.