RANGOON — About 500 farmers from across Burma gathered at a two-day event in Rangoon this week to call on the government to address the worsening land confiscation issue and to return farmland that was seized under the previous military regime.
Desperate farmers addressed the Voice of the Farmer event, which was organized by the 88 Generation Students Group on Monday and Tuesday. Many pleaded for help as their land — often their sole source of income — had been taken from them.
“I only had this land. We live a very simple life. Our life is to grow paddy. We did not have any work after they took it,” said Mya Sein. The 60-year-old farmer from Irrawaddy Division’s Kyoung Pyaw Township said she lost 2 acres of land in 2006 after local authorities allocated a total of 63 acres (25 hectares) in her village to an agro-industrial company.
“I will keep asking for our land. This is our right and it is our land,” said Mya Sein, who represents a group of affected farmers in her village.
Activists had invited hundreds of farmers from areas such as Irrawaddy, Sagaing, Pegu and Magwe divisions, and Shan, Mon and Kayah states to voice their concerns over past and current land grabs.
“They [farmers] have been suffering for a long time as they had to stay under the military regime. I saw some farmers cry while they were speaking out. It was sad to see, but they are very brave,” said 88 Student activist Tun Myint Aung. “If we keep working together, I believe that we will reach our goal.”
During the past decades, the Burma Army forcibly evicted tens of thousands of farmers from their lands to make way for industrial zones, state-run agriculture and industrial projects, or to allocate land to private companies with links to the military.
A parliamentary commission found that about 300,000 hectares of land were confiscated by the army, which offered little compensation to affected farmers and crushed any local dissent. Under President Thein Sein’s reformist government, these land grabs are now coming under scrutiny from both the public and Parliament.
Yet at the same time, economic development is leading to a growing demand for land and complaints of land-grabbing by powerful private firms are rapidly increasing, especially in Irrawaddy Division, the country’s main rice-growing area. The land confiscations have been met with a rise in land protests.
Tun Aung from Nawnghkio Township, northern Shan State, said local authorities had asked farmers in 2007 to vacate about 50,000 acres (12,500 hectares) in order to make way for coffee plantations, adding that villagers had received no compensation for their loss of land.
So far, he said, the Ministry of Industry had begun planting about 500 acres with coffee plants, while Moe Thet Chan Company and Ahnandar Company had planted about 1,200 acres and 85 acres, respectively.
Tun Aung said the affected communities had since sent letters of complaint to local authorities and Nawnghkio Township Court, but they received no replies. He said the group recently sent letters to Parliament and to President Thein Sein’s office.
In downtown Rangoon on Tuesday, some 50 residents of Botahtaung Township gathered outside of City Hall to protest against the loss of their lands located along the banks of the Rangoon River.
The protesters said big construction firms, such as Yuzana Company, Wa Wa Win Co, Ltd Eden Group Co Ltd, had confiscated their land for projects or declined to pay appropriate lease fees for use of the area.
The group said their repeated letters of complaint to municipal authorities, the Ministry of Construction and the president’s office had been ignored.
“As the government didn’t take any action for us, we now have to come on the streets to express our demands,” said a protestor named Myint Aung, adding that the group would continue protesting until their complaints are addressed.
“We don’t want to protest against anyone. We want to live in peace as ordinary people, many here are old. But we have to come on streets and protest in the rain,” he said.