Imprisoned Shan Farmers Will Appeal their Trespassing Convictions

By San Yamin Aung & Zue Zue 23 December 2016

RANGOON — Seventy-two imprisoned farmers will appeal a court verdict in which they were found guilty of trespassing on military-owned land in Shan State, their lawyer said Friday.

A township court in Taunggyi, the Shan State capital, sentenced the 40 male and 32 female farmers to a month in prison under trespassing charges which were brought by the Burma Army’s Eastern Command. It was the first time that a Burmese court delivered this type of mass verdict against farmers.

The Army argued that the farmers continued to work on some of the 5,000 acres of land which are owned by the Eastern Command. The farmers disputed that the Burma Army was the rightful owner.

On Thursday, the court sentenced six elderly farmers and a 17-year-old girl to pay a fine, and then they were released. The remaining 65 farmers are in jail.

Daw Khin Moe Moe, a lawyer with Peace and Justice Legal Aid, told The Irrawaddy that they are preparing to appeal the farmers’ case to Taunggyi District Court because the verdict against the farmers was unjust.

“In Burma, there has never been a verdict against such a large number of farmers,” Daw Khin Moe Moe said.

She said this trespassing case was also the first case against farmers in Shan State since March 30, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) government came to power.

Early in its tenure, the NLD government formed a Central Review Committee on Confiscated Farm Lands and Other Lands that was chaired by Vice President Henry Van Thio in May.

The committee is tasked with monitoring state and divisional governments’ handling of land disputes and enabling the return of land to dispossessed farmers from government ministries, state-owned enterprises, and private companies.

The committee had said that they would settle all land grabbing cases in Burma within “six months.” But nearly nine months on, while ceremonies marking the return of confiscated land to dispossessed farmers were held, land dispute cases are still ongoing.

Lawyer Daw Khin Moe Moe argued that the cases against 72 farmers should be handled by the government’s Central Review Committee on Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands instead of charging them under criminal trespass laws and imprisoning them.

She added that she is not very hopeful about the appeals process because the plaintiff is the Burma Army’s Eastern Command.

“I would like to urge the regional government, lawmakers, and legal departments to assist on this and request at the Parliament to resolve the land disputes in a fair way for farmers,” she said.

The Upper House’s farmers affairs committee revealed in April that some 200,000 acres of farmland had been confiscated nationwide in recent decades.

“The situation has not gotten better under the NLD government,” said farmers’ rights activist U Zaw Yan. “We never hear that those people who confiscated the land from farmers ever face legal action. Instead, the Army brings more cases against farmers.”