RANGOON — More than 8,000 villagers in Kachin State have sent an open letter to Burma’s new government calling on it to address a land confiscation dispute with Yuzana Company Limited, a Burmese conglomerate blacklisted by the United States.
More than 270,000 acres of farmland in the Hukawng region of Hpakant Township were seized by the company in 2007 for agricultural projects like cassava and sugarcane plantations, the complainants say.
At a press conference in Rangoon on Tuesday, Tang Gun, a farmer from the region who claims to have lost seven acres of land to Yuzana, said: “We believe the government will solve the problem for us. That’s why we voted for them. We will keep protesting until we get our land back.”
Yuzana is owned by Burmese tycoon Htay Myint, who is on the US sanctions list, barring American companies from doing business with him. The conglomerate is involved in construction, agriculture, hospitality, real estate and fishery industries.
Tang Gun explained that employees of Yuzana showed up with police and soldiers when they seized his land in 2007 and began clearing the area, cutting down trees and readying the land for large-scale agricultural production.
He said that almost a decade ago locals had no other option but to receive a compensatory sum from the company deemed insufficient, adding that about 330 villagers were paid 80,000 kyats (US$70) per acre, but more than 100 had received no compensation whatsoever.
“Villagers have been waiting for years and they can’t keep suffering. They took the money because they needed it to live, but they were not satisfied with the compensation,” he said.
The open letter was copied and sent to concerned parliamentarians, the chief minister of Kachin State, Yuzana Company and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which helped set up the nearby Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve more than a decade ago.
It stated that four villages had been wiped off the map and nine others had been relocated due to the company’s 2007 actions. About 300 households from the four demolished villages were moved to a “model village” elsewhere in Hpakant Township.
Aung Latt, another farmer, said tension between Yuzana and the local villagers grows daily.
“We don’t want to be excluded from the decision-making process. We believe the new government will side with civilians like us. That’s why we sent the letter,” he said.
Local villagers filed a lawsuit against the company in 2013 and held several protests in 2014, with no results. Yuzana continued operations through 2015 and into this year.
Locals also claim that the company seized an additional 300,000 acres in neighboring Tanai Township to the north.
According to a report by US-based research center Forest Trends, Yuzana was one of numerous companies that received massive land grants from the former military regime for agricultural development projects.
Villagers are calling on President Htin Kyaw to resettle displaced people back to their abandoned villages, and to return confiscated lands.
In a separate statement, Mungchying Rawt Jat (MRJ), a rights group established by landless Kachin farmers, called on the government to cancel the controversial Myitsone dam project, also sited in Kachin State.
Former President Thein Sein suspended the dam contract between China and Burma, and the new government has not yet addressed the controversy.