MANDALAY — A Sagaing Division court sentenced 18 farmers to prison terms varying from three months to three years on Thursday on charges of trespassing and causing damage, after the farmers had plowed land that is being claimed by a sugar cane company, local villagers said.
About 300 farmers from eight villages are facing similar charges and could be sent to prison soon, they added.
Kantbalu Township Court sentenced the farmers from Nghat Pyaw Tine village, including one woman, on a range of charges.
Most were sentenced on charges of trespassing and committing mischief that causes losses or damage for their role in a communal protest in May during which some 400 farmers began plowing land they said had been illegally seized from them in the 1990s.
“The court today sentenced 18 of our friends. The prison sentence is three
months for each charge, so the minimum sentence is three months’ imprisonment and the maximum is three years,” said Kyaw Ngwe, a farmer of Ngat Pyaw Tine village who is also facing charges.
One farmer received a three-year prison sentence, while three others received sentences ranging from 21 months to one year in prison. Fourteen farmers were sentenced to three to six month sentences, local villagers said.
Kyaw Ngwe said authorities banned the public from attending the verdict. “We only knew the sentences when all the accused came out from the court room. The court said that they will sentence more farmers from Kha Ohn Tha village tomorrow,” he added.
Local villagers said that some 100 farmers were present during the trial on Thursday to face charges related to the May protest.
The 18 convicted farmers were reportedly brought Shwe Bo Township Prison. Family members of the defendants said they will apply for an appeal at a higher court in Naypyidaw.
On Monday, the court had already sentenced two farmers from Pay Gyi Village and Htaut Shar to two year’s imprisonment on charges related to the May protest. Another man was sentenced to one year in prison on accusations that he burned down part of the sugar cane plantation.
Following the protest in May, local businessmen growing the sugar cane filed a lawsuit against the protesting farmers and authorities began investigating charges against all those who were involved in the protest. Official have indicated that they plan to bring all farmers to trial.
Farmers in Kantbalu Township claim that about 3,500 acres belonging to eight impoverished villages was confiscated by a local army unit in 1997, which later leased out the land to businessmen who have been using it to grow sugar cane.
In recent years, the farmers have filed complaints over the alleged land grab and had some success after the Ministry of Defense announced in March 2013 that it would hand back most of the land. The company has reportedly refused to vacate the sugar plantation, leading to tensions with local villagers.
“During that time, we reached an agreement that they [the company] will give up the land once they’ve completed the harvest. Now everything has been harvested but they broke the agreement, that’s why we plow on our lands in protest,” said Tin Tun, a farmer from Kha Ohn Tha village.
Ma Khaing, another farmer, said authorities and the court appeared to be colluding with the company in order to suppress the villagers’ demand to gain back their land.
“How can we trust the government since they neglect us and treat us unfairly? We have no one we can trust. We are disappointed with the judicial system and will never forgive how the authorities have treated us”, she said.
Under the former military regime, hundreds of THOUSANDS OF 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 sweeping political reforms, thousands of 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.