Hundreds of Farmers Prosecuted After ‘Harrow Battle’

By Salai Thant Zin 11 September 2013

More than 500 farmers are being prosecuted for illegally plowing land that was confiscated from them in Irrawaddy Division, rights activists say.

Farmers from eight townships in the delta region—including Bassein Township, where the division’s capital is located—have reportedly been charged with trespassing and damaging property after plowing the fields, which were seized local and higher level authorities as well as private companies.

“Five hundred and thirteen farmers are currently facing the aforementioned charges, of which more than 300 are in Mawlamyinegyun Township,” Htun Htun, an activist from the Human Rights Monitoring and Protection Network, told The Irrawaddy.

He said that last week on Wednesday and Thursday, 17 farmers were given two-month prison sentences, including hard labor, by the township court in Mawlamyinegyun.

“Nothing had been grown yet—there was only grass and weeds when the farmers entered their seized lands and worked in a protest called the ‘Harrow Battle’ to win them back,” he added. A harrow is an agricultural tool used to break up and smooth the surface of soil.

Trespass in Burma can be punished with a maximum of three months in prison and a fine of 500 kyats (50 cents), while destruction of property can be punished with two years in prison and a fine based on the amount of damage.

“Imprisoning farmers with hard labor is very severe—it shouldn’t happen like that at all,” said Kyi Lwin, an activist from the Burmese Democracy Network. “If this practice continues, there may be farmers’ uprisings, like the Saya San Rebellion [1930-32], in the future.”

Legal experts in Burma agreed the sentences in Irrawaddy Division were harsh. “They should just be warned about what will happen to them if they do it again,” a high court lawyer in Rangoon said, requesting to remain anonymous. “I think two years in prison with hard labor is a bit too much.”

The chief justice of Irrawaddy Division told regional lawmakers on Friday that cases of trespass and illegal farming on confiscated land had been resolved in accordance with the law.

Farmers from 13 of 26 townships in the division took part in the “Harrow Battle” in June and July, activists say.

They say more than 100,000 acres of farmland across the delta region have been confiscated by the army, governmental institutions and private companies for various reasons.