MANDALAY — About 1,000 farmers in Sagaing Division’s Kantbalu Township staged a protest on Wednesday to demand back confiscated lands and ask for the release of dozens of villagers who were recently imprisoned, local sources said.
The farmers had expected to gather in the thousands in order to pressure Kantbalu authorities over their harsh treatment of local communities in recent months, but due to the heavy rains only about 1,000 farmers showed up, according to local reporters who attended the demonstration.
The protesters, who had gained prior authorization for the gathering, shouted slogans and held up banners and placards urging authorities to end the prosecution of some 300 farmers and return about 3,500 acres of land that was confiscated from eight villages by Burma Army units in the 1990s.
The demonstrators marched from Kantbalu town’s sport field to the township administration compound.
Aung Khaing, a protester who is also facing charges, said farmers were protesting in order to step up pressure on local authorities and demand that the Sagaing Division Court overturns the conviction of imprisoned farmers.
“We complained to the district court, but the court didn’t listen to us. We just want justice, our lands back and the release of our friends,” he said.
“We’ve sent appeals to the divisional court and divisional authorities but we received no answers so far,” said Tin Tun, another protestor.
The farmers face charges of trespassing and mischief causing damage because they had plowed land that is being used by a sugar cane company in May. About 65 farmers have since been sent to prison by Kantbalu Township Court, which handed down sentences that ranged from 3 months to several years’ imprisonment.
Roughly 240 other farmers are awaiting their verdicts in the trial in coming weeks and many could face imprisonment.
Some 3,500 acres in Kantbula Township were 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.
In 2013, the Ministry of Defense announced it would return confiscated lands to farm communities across Burma, and in Kantbalu about 100 farmers were told by local authorities that they would receive several acres of land each.
However, the company who leased the lands has reportedly refused to vacate the sugar plantation and only a few farmers received back some land. This intransigence on the part of the company sparked tensions that led to the May protest and plowing of land.
Aung Khaing said even the few who received letters saying they could access their land had been prosecuted for trespassing after they began cultivating it. “Only four farmers got back their land, but they are now in the prison,” he said.
Officials at Kantbalu Township and Sagaing Division offices declined to comment on the protest, saying they were too busy to talk to reporters.