The President of Burma has announced that the government cannot give back over 30,000 acres of paddy land that the state has been using since it was confiscated by the army two decades ago. President U Thein Sein ordered state and regional governments as well as the land management committee to cooperate with members of the parliament to solve the problem of land grabbing cases. At the same time, he has announced the government cannot return some land which is leading to prosecution and prison sentences for the farmers in conflict with the army regarding their land.
Land disputes in Burma are an on-going problem as the country emerges from decades of military rule, with rights groups expressing concern about a potential “land-grabbing epidemic” in the country.
According to the the President’s office official website, the President submitted a report for the period April 26th 2014 to June 24th 2014 to National Parliament regarding the confiscation of land by the military, ministries, regional government, and businesses with only small amounts of compensation. There are many more cases of the government neither paying compensation nor returning the land to its owners.
Farmers in the Delta region of Burma are being prosecuted by the Burmese army. In 1997-1998, the military confiscated 250 acres of land from farmers of Thabaung Township, Ayeyarwaddy Region. The original landowners have had no choice but to continue farming their land. However, in November 2013, Battalion Captains have prosecuted the landowners who have attempted to cultivate the land, under Penal Code Section 447/427. The army has accused them of trespassing on paddy land, which originally belonged to the farmers but was confiscated by army captains at gunpoint. The farmers face trial in several cases lodged against them and the ordeal has turned their lives upside down.
Now the military units have prosecuted the farmers, the owners of the land, by accusing them of trespassing and damaging their land. There are several issues faced by the farmers: they cannot work; and they spend whatever money and time they have to go to trial. The cases are ongoing, and the farmers have no respite despite it being rainy season which is the time to grow paddy. When the land was confiscated, the authorities involved did not follow the law of state ownership of agricultural land; rather, the land was grabbed at gunpoint. There was no compensation for the land either.
On May 27th and 28th 2014, 190 farmers from Pharuso Township, Kayah State were prosecuted for ploughing in land confiscated by No. 531 Light Infantry Battalion. The Tanintharyi regional government seized farmland for Dawei New Town Plan Project in Dawai Township and the District Administrative Officer with his team began construction on the grabbed land. Twenty farmers did not take compensation for their land tried to halt the team. As a result, all the farmers were prosecuted
Ten were sentenced to three to nine months imprisonment and the others paid fines. There are 450 farmers from Kanbalu Township, Sagaing Region who are protesting against the military and have had cases filed against them for cultivating in the confiscated land. Their lands were used for a sugar cane project and a sugar production factory by the military and the Myanmar Economic Corporation. They were brought to court under the Penal Code, accused of trespassing and mischief on the land. They cases are still going on, more than 65 farmers have been sentenced to jail since the second week of July, and they all have been sent to various prisons around the country.
The military grabbed lands from civilians to build up places for military training operations, plantation and animal production, and various forms of military owned businesses. To get financial support for battalions, they offer to rent the land back to farmers, essentially requiring the farmers to pay to grow crops on their own land. The Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services gave an order to the battalions not to do business with civilian and avoid offering any such tenant agreements, but the order has been ignored.
Ministries and corporations have also confiscated farmland for new town plans and infrastructure projects. Some lands were confiscated under the Land Acquisition Act, but insufficient compensation was given to the farmers. Government corporations also grabbed the farmland to build state owned factories; however they sold the land to private companies instead.
Private companies that applied for the virgin lands from farmland management body have, instead, been given farmland and pastureland mislabelled as virgin land. District and Township Officers, companies and farmland management bodies cooperated together to change the documents and grab the land. As the government annulled pastureland, they did not give compensation to the farmers.
The Asian Human Rights Commission, a rights group based in Hong Kong, is calling for the military to offer sufficient compensation according to the Land Acquisition Act, as well as stop prosecutions of and provide justice for the farmers. The AHRC also condemns the military’s illegal land grabs, military cooperation business with private companies to use such lands and the practice of renting land back to the original owners.
In February, there were bloody clashes in southwest Burma between police and farmers who were among hundreds trying to take back land they say was confiscated by a private company without compensation.