MANDALAY — Sagaing Division authorities have taken further harsh action against farmers in Kantbalu Township who claim their land was grabbed, as a court sentenced another 47 villagers to prison terms last week, according to families of the detained, who said that 15 of the men have been transferred to remote prisons.
On July 17, Kantbalu Township Court began handing down the verdicts in a mass trial against some 300 farmers and sentenced 18 farmers to prison terms varying from three years to 3 months on charges of trespassing and causing losses or damage because they had plowed land that is being used by a sugar cane company.
In the days that followed, another 47 farmers were convicted for similar charges and at least three men were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, villagers told The Irrawaddy on Friday, adding that most were sentenced to three-month prison terms.
In a further punishment for the impoverished families, authorities decided to transfer at least 15 prisoners from Shwe Bo Township Prison to serve time in remote prisons in Mandalay and Pegu divisions.
“They’ve sentenced the farmers with harsh punishments without giving back their confiscated lands,” said Ko Gyi, a land rights who is helping the farmers to submit an appeal.
“Now, moving them to prisons far away from Kantbalu is like further humiliation for the farmers and their families. They did this to frighten the farmers and it is meant like a warning not to protest for the return of their lands,” he said.
Tun Aung, a family member of one of the jailed farmers, said, “Some were transferred to Pakokku Prison; some were even transferred to prisons in Myingyan, Pegu and Taungoo.
“It will be very difficult for us to go a place that far. Some families do not even know about the prison transfer and some broke down after they found out,” he added.
The farmers and the families are planning to submit an appeal to the harsh sentences at the Sagaing Divisional Court. Roughly 240 other farmers are awaiting their verdicts in the trial in coming days and weeks, and many could face imprisonment.
Authorities have come down hard on residents of eight villages in Kantbula Township after a businessman filed a lawsuit for trespassing and causing damages to his sugar plantation during a communal protest by farmers in May.
Government officials decided to charge some 300 farmers involved in the protest during which they began plowing land, a popular form of protest by farmers trying to defend their land rights in Burma these days.
The land in Kantbula Township was part of some 3,500 acres that was forcibly confiscated by a local army unit in 1997 and later leased to local businessmen, who have since been planting it with sugar cane.
The farmers have been trying to reclaim the land for several years and filed complaints with authorities. They had some success after the Ministry of Defense announced in March 2013 that it would hand back most of the land. However, the company who leased the lands has reportedly refused to vacate the sugar plantation, sparking tensions that led to the May protest.
Under the former military regime, hundreds of thousands hectares of land were seized from communities all over Burma and any dissent against the land grabs was brutally crushed.
After President Thein Sein’s government introduced political reforms, farmers across Burma have come forward to reclaim their seized land. Meanwhile, agro-industry businesses are rapidly expanding in the country, leading to new cases of land-grabbing.