RANGOON — About 500 farmers from all over Burma demonstrated in the center of Rangoon on Saturday to call for the return of land taken under the country’s military regime and for trespassing charges not to be used against farmers robbed of land.
Two organizers were later charged after local authorities declined to authorize the demonstration, which took place at Rangoon’s Maha Bandoola Garden.
“These farmers have come from all around the country—from six provinces and states,” said Nay Myo Zin, an organizer and the director of local NGO the Myanmar Social Development Network. He explained that farmers had come from as far as Shan and Kachin states to protest.
He said thousands of acres of land were forcibly taken from farmers in the years until the junta ceded power to quasi-civilian administration in 2011.
Farmers now felt they could protest publicly about their grievances, but about 260 are currently jailed and 1,000 have been hit with charges for protesting the loss of their land, or returning to farm it, he said.
“They’ve come to get their land back from the crony businessmen who occupy their land, as well as the military and the government who took it. Most of the land is taken and not used for anything,” Nay Myo Zin said, adding that he hoped the demonstration, the first of its kind by Burma’s farmers, would make the public aware of the issues faced by farmers.
A large contingent had traveled from Irrawaddy Division, where more than 40,000 acres were held by businesses with links to government officials, the military or the government itself.
Yin Oo, 50, from Zin Baung Village in Irrawaddy Division’s Pyapon Township, said he was among 15 farmers who last year began planting crops on about 45 acres of land left unused after it was taken from them by the government beginning in 1979.
“We want the government to give the land back. We are the original owners,” he said.
Seven of the farmers were charged in June with trespassing and criminal damage under articles 447 and 427 of the Burmese Penal Code.
“We couldn’t protest under the military government. Now, we try to take action, but we are charged,” he added.
Among another group of farmers from Irrawaddy Division was 54-year-old San San Aye. She said she and 100 other farmers in Kha Nwe Kha Po village, Pantanaw Township, were demanding that about 2,000 acres of land in total be returned, after it was sold on to a company owned by the brother of a local senator.
“We came here because we feel very sad and very angry. Not just me, my whole group, we feel angry at the company,” she said.
Nay Myo Zin said permission to protest was requested at Kyauktada Township Police Station. “They didn’t grant the permission, giving the reason that ‘there are no farmers or farm problems at Kyauktada Township,’” he said.
The demonstration went ahead, and Nay Myo Zin and fellow organizer Win Cho were later charged by police with Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law. The repeal of Article 18—prohibiting gatherings without prior permission—is the subject of a broad civil society campaign, and was one of the demands of the protesters in the first place.
“We feel that this is a violation of our basic rights granted by the Constitution if we still need permission to express ourselves,” Nay Myo Zin said.