Burma’s police and farmers in Naypyidaw’s Popathiri Township clashed early Thursday morning when police raided homes of residents, who are demanding they be allowed to return to farmland confiscated by the Ministry of Information (MOI).
Trespassing charges have been filed against six leaders of the residents, who are now in hiding. The six escaped arrest as angry residents of Weigyi village detained almost 30 police officers and allegedly injured seven police.
The residents were forced off some 500 acres of farmland in nearby Zayyathiri Township in 2006 to make way for the offices of state-owned newspapers. Following complaints from the farmers over the confiscation of their land and the lack of compensation, the MOI’s News and Periodicals Enterprise—which publishes the New Light of Myanmar, Myanma Alin, and Kye Mon newspaper—last month started paying compensation to those farmers who did not get compensation seven years ago.
But some are not accepting the compensation. Instead, they demand the return of the land left over after the construction of the newspaper offices, which they say cover only about one-fifth of the total area confiscated.
Earlier this week, about 40 farmers entered the land, cut down some of the eucalyptus trees planted there and began plowing.
Then, in the early hours Thursday, about 40 police from Zayyathiri and Popathiri townships, led by police Major Kyaw Myo, descended on Weigyi.
Zaw Latt, a local National League for Democracy member, said police came to his home demanding to see his household registration documents at 1:30 a.m.
“They stepped on my neck and handcuffed me,” he said. “They harassed my wife and slapped my 11 years old daughter, who is just a fifth grade student.”
Zaw Latt said the police left him handcuffed in his home, and said he did not see exactly what happened next.
“There were clashes after the villagers came, but I was in the house with handcuff and I did not see whether the police are beaten by the villagers or they beat themselves,” he said.
Police also entered the homes of residents Htun Htun, Win Hlaing and Win Shwe, according to Zaw Latt. Police later filed charges against the three, as well as Zaw Latt and two female residents, Win Kyi and Khin Aye.
Ko Zaw, a Weigyi resident, told The Irrawaddy the villagers, angry about the raid, surrounded police. The villagers detained some 27 police until more police came sometime before dawn, when they were let go, Ko Zaw said.
Bo Han, the police captain of Shwetwingone police station in Zayyathiri Township, told The Irrawaddy the raid and the arrests were triggered by a trespassing complaint from the state-run newspapers.
“There were some 30 to 40 villagers, but we cannot arrest all of them, so we picked their leaders—four men and two women,” Bo Han said.
He said villagers clashed violently with police, and seven officers from the Kyitaukkhan, Zayyathiri, and Shwetwingone townships were wounded.
“Five of them are severely wounded on their heads and are now at the Naypyidaw Hospital,” Bo Han said.
The villagers said the police had no arrest warrant when they attempted to arrest them during the night, but the police say they do not need the court warrant to make arrests in such a case.
Ye Htut, the deputy information minister, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the local News and Periodicals Enterprise director had been dealing with the issue since he received complaints from the farmers.
Ye Htut insisted compensation was paid at the time the land was seized, and additional compensation of between 250,000 to 500,000 kyat, or US$260 to $520, had been accepted by more than half of the farmers.
He said the demands of the residents could not be met.
“As the newspaper building is already built and we have eucalyptus trees on the remaining areas,” they can’t have the land back, Ye Htut said.
“We explained to them that accepting compensation is the only way to solve it.”