PANDAUNG TOWNSHIP — Twelve farmers were sentenced to between three years and six months in prison by a court in Pegu Division’s Padaung Township on Tuesday for damaging a company-owned teak plantation during a land dispute protest last year.
During the verdict, Judge Nan May Yin of Pandaung Township Court handed farmer Maung Lin a three-year prison term, while six villagers received one-year and nine-month sentences. Another farmer was sentenced to eight months in prison and four were sentenced to six months.
Min Min, a land rights activist from Prome, told an Irrawaddy reporter that the sentence was a grave injustice for the farmers as they were being punished for opposing a land grab by a well-connected company. “Our local farmers have been suffering a lot because their land has been taken and now they even have to go to prison. They are just poor farmers,” he said.
About a dozen families in Kyarinn village, Padaung Township, have been 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 1,500-acre teak plantation in a local forest reserve in 2008.
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 defendants were released on bail last year and have since attended several hearings at the court. On Feb. 11, however, six farmers showed up for a court hearing and were arrested, while the judge ordered arrest warrants for the other seven defendants. Six of the farmers were arrested in recent days; it remains unclear if the last remaining defendant is still at large.
Min Min alleged that the company NRDC had exerted influence over the court’s decision. “I found there was pressure on the judge. She could not decide in accordance with the rule of law,” he said. “Rule of law in our country is still in the hands of those who have power.”
NDRC is reportedly owned by Maung Toe, an Upper House lawmaker with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, a party run by members of the previous military regime that ruled Burma for decades.
Judge Nan May Yin told The Irrawaddy that the sentence had been fair, adding, “I feel very sad for them. [But] as I am a civil servant and I have to act according to the law.”
The twelve convicted farmers were transferred to Prome Prison shortly after their verdict on Tuesday.
One of them, Sabae, received a one-year and nine-months prison sentence. His wife, Htay Htay, told The Irrawaddy that the sentence was “unacceptable,” adding that, “We will seek justice and our farmers’ rights within the rule of law in order to win this case. The rights of our farmers are being abused throughout the country.”
Kyarinn village farmers say they had been living in the forest reserve since 1968, but 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, until NDRC was granted a 1,500-acre teak concession in the area 2008, part of which overlapped with existing farmlands.
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 dramatically increased.