'Farmers Need to Know Their Rights'

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 3 June 2015

The Democracy and Peace Women Network (DPW)performs awareness-raising programs for farmers to obtain knowledge about land laws approved by Parliament last year. Among the organization’s leadership is current political prisoner Naw Ohn Hla, recently sentenced to more than four years in prison for her role in protesting the Letpadaung copper mining project. Ma Thandar, secretary of the DPW and also the wife of late journalist Par Gyi, spoke with The Irrawaddy from a village in Myaungmya Township about the challenges faced by farmers and the DPW Network’s training programs around the country.

Who is funding DPW’s awareness trainings for farmers to better understand recent land laws?

The US-based AJWS [American Jewish World Service] is supporting us by funding land law awareness workshops for farmers. Before this, we had funded our activities on our own since 2013. It’s now been one year that we’ve been working with AJWS. They normally provide financial support for 50 farmers to attend each of these trainings, of which there will be 10 per year. But actually, the number of farmers who attended the workshops was more than 50—we couldn’t limit these people. Normally, more than 150 to 200 farmers came to each workshop, so we had to cut some costs so that we could include everyone. For example, if we had a budget of 1,500 kyat per meal per person, we had to discuss the amount with the residents and ask them to cook enough for all of the participants.

How many workshops will DPW hold in 2015?

Actually, the budget already finished as of April 30. Ten seminars were completed last year. The new budget is going to start in August of this year.

As you travel around the country and talk with farmers, what problems do they most commonly speak of?

They have totally different problems in different places. For example, in Eainme Township in the Irrawaddy Delta, farmers are facing difficulties paying back their mortgages. They borrowed money from wealthy people who they are unable to pay back later, so they lose their land. This means that land is being confiscated by other residents, and not necessarily by the government. We’ve been providing awareness about this in the townships of Wah Kema, Pantanaw and Nyaungdon in the Irrawaddy Delta region.

What are your target areas for the land law workshops?

There are three major target areas including Irrawaddy, Bago and Magwe divisions. These will continue to be the main areas for us for next year, too. But we will also include other areas like Kayin and Mon states and Sagaing Division.

What type of research is DPW engaged in?

Next year, members of DPW trained by international experts will conduct a survey funded by AJWS. We will have to do research to see how farmers’ voices can support the amendments of land laws in coming years. Early last year, DPW submitted some points to Parliament about amending the land laws, but are still waiting for the result.

What projects would you like to undertake in the future?

We want to advocate for and work with women farmers in villages. We would like to show them how to manage money and income. We would like to educate women on land law and regulations, as well as on the dangers of mortgages. But the problem is that we don’t have a big enough budget to do this project yet. We have discussed researching it and working on a development plan with our donors.

How many members do you now have in DPW?

In total, there are 500 members in DPW. But only executive members are running these development projects.

What challenges have you faced in dealing with local authorities, particularly while conducting workshops in rural areas?

We’ve been harassed by the local authorities while conducting seminars in villages. For example, police cars and some security vehicles were parked in front of the places where DPW planned to deliver workshops. Farmers wouldn’t come to the venue once they saw the police cars there. But we are discussing laws in these seminars; these laws are not illegal under the government. I feel like the authorities are attempting to infringe on the farmers’ right to know. It seems that they are afraid for farmers to understand anything about land law.

In your experience, what do farmers know about the recent land laws approved by the Parliament?

They don’t know what the land laws are. Most farmers haven’t seen the land law book issued by the government. Actually, this is totally the responsibility of the government: to help farmers gain knowledge about land policy. So I asked farmers whether they had heard or seen any information about this, and they said no, they had not. That’s why we’re doing our best to educate them about it. Farmers need to know their rights. Then they can do more to help their country’s economy to develop. If the government doesn’t want farmers to know about this, it is obvious that this government doesn’t want their country to develop in the future.