RANGOON — Nine farmers were each sentenced to seven years in prison for working on lands they say were unlawfully seized by the military in Mon State.
The farmers claim that they are the original and rightful owners of several acres of crop land in Ah Nan Pin village, Thaton Township, but that the lands were confiscated by the Burmese military in 1984.
Farmers’ rights advocate Than Myint, who liaises on behalf of the farmers, told The Irrawaddy that Maj-Gen Myo Khin ordered the seizure under the premise of regional development projects.
He said that the government didn’t occupy the land until 2004, when the Ministry of Industry took over the property as a rubber plantation.
The plantation was a failure and was later abandoned, he said, so the farmers reoccupied the land and resumed tending the fields.
Nine of the original landowners entered the property in March 2014 and attempted to weed out the overgrowth. They were shortly after summoned to Thaton District Court on charges of trespassing and destruction of property.
A sentence of seven years each was handed down on Tuesday.
Than Myint, who serves as a central standing committee member of the Burma Federation of Farmers and Agriculture Unions, said that the group will appeal the decision and continue fighting for the right to use what they say are their ancestral lands.
“They received no compensation at all when those lands were stolen from them,” Than Myint said. “It is very unfair for them to be jailed for seven years, and we will appeal.”
Five farmers from Mon State’s Paung Township are currently facing similar charges for attempting to plough seized lands. The group is still awaiting a verdict.
Reports of land-grabbing have sprung up across the country in recent years, as many farmers claim that their property was seized by the military in the early 1990s, often to be used for unsuccessful agro-industrial projects and later abandoned. Many farmers have returned to use the lands and are now being forced out by the military, which still claims ownership.
The Burmese government initiated major land policy reform in early 2012, but the new legislation has been criticized for its weak protection of small-scale farmers and legitimation of government land acquisitions.
A parliamentary Farmland Investigation Commission was created in 2012 to resolve disputes, which has already received thousands of claims about hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Earlier this year, the commission ordered relevant government bodies to resolve outstanding cases by September at the latest, a deadline that came and went without incident.
In August, the Rangoon Division government admitted that it would be unable to settle some 300 claims by the end of its term in 2016. Other parts of the country have experienced similar setbacks as regional governments lack capacity for appraisals and compensation schemes.