Karenni Farmers Jailed in Land Dispute With Army Leave Prison

By Lawi Weng 13 March 2020

A group 41 Karenni farmers and activists who were detained for more than six months for damaging property during a land dispute with the Myanmar army were released from prison after completing their sentences and paying fines in the Kayah State capital of Loikaw on Friday, according to local sources.

A court in Loikaw authorized the release of 22 prisoners and another court in Demoso Township approved the release of the remaining 19. Khu Tu Reh, the chairman of the Karenni State Farmer Union (KSFU), who was present at the Demoso court for the announcement, told The Irrawaddy that the 19 farmers in Demoso were released after paying fines of 10,000 kyats each (about US$7).

“The farmers paid fines as per Article 447; they paid 10,000 kyats each. They would have been required to serve another 25 days in prison if they did not pay the fine, according to the verdict from the court,” he said.

The farmers were sentenced to six months in prison under Section 6(1) of the Public Property Protection Act for damaging a fence put up by the Myanmar military. They were released upon completing their sentence, he added.

The farmers are indigenous Karenni people. According to their traditional customary law, they own the land. The court in Demoso rejected this claim, however, because they could not present ownership documentation to the court.

The Myanmar army (or Tatmadaw) was able to present maps and other documents establishing its claim to the land.

“The court’s decision [to jail the farmers] was unfair; the court favored the Tatmadaw. The indigenous farmers were denied their rights. They used their law, and bullied our indigenous people,” said Khu Tu Reh.

By jailing the farmers, the court legitimized the Tatmadaw’s strategy of using the law to persecute indigenous people who fight for their land, he said.

The 41—most of whom are farmers, with three activists—were sued in two groups in Demoso and Loikaw under Articles 447 and 427 of the Penal Code for trespassing and causing damage, and also for damaging military fences under the Public Property Protection Act.

Dee De, a rights activist who was present at the court in Loikaw on Friday, told The Irrawaddy that the court based its verdict on the country’s Constitution—something he said was unfair.

“I do not believe the court’s verdict delivered justice. Even though the court ruled that those lands belong to the Myanmar army, we continue to believe that the land belongs to our people,” he said.

The courts violated the rights of the farmers by making them stay in prison for about six months, causing them many difficulties including physical and mental problems, and making it very hard for their families to survive, he said.

According to the government, Khu Tu Reh said, Myanmar is undergoing political reform and moving towards democracy, but farmers are powerless to sue the Myanmar army when it confiscates land from local people. He said local people needed to find out how to fight back against the Tatmadaw in court.

“We will find out which articles we can use to sue the Tatmadaw under international law [in support of indigenous rights]. If we don’t fight them, they will continue to confiscate our indigenous land,” he said.

The Myanmar army has been engaged in a long-running dispute over land with indigenous Karenni farmers, and this is not the first case in which the Tatmadaw has sued locals.

The military has filed around 60 lawsuits against farmers in Kayah State since July. The land had been farmed by local communities for about 50 years, according to the KSFU, which says the local farmers had Form 7 land-registration certificates.

In May, artillery and infantry battalions in Loikaw and Demoso townships started building fences on land that had sat unused since the military seized it from the farmers in 1990, according to the KSFU.