Myanmar Court Jails Farmers for Using Vacant Land

By Salai Thant Zin 20 September 2019

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Region – Maubin Township Court in Irrawaddy Region on Wednesday sentenced eight farmers to two years in prison for farming land owned by a private company.

Orchard Co. obtained 223 hectares of land in Pa Laung Village, Maletto village-tract in Maubin from the government in 1999. The company dug lakes but never bred fish. Farmers started cultivating the land in 2013.

The company then filed a lawsuit against the farmers under the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law of 2017, and after a two-year trial, the township court jailed the farmers.

“The punishment is too harsh. They are the original owners of the land. And they didn’t receive compensation. The fish lake was left abandoned. So they farmed on the land thinking that it was vacant. The court should show mercy as they are the original owners,” defense lawyer U Thein Maung told The Irrawaddy.

The eight farmers were given the maximum penalty under the law and sent to Maubin Prison.

“The judge didn’t take the evidence submitted by the farmers into consideration, but listened only to the one-sided accusations of the plaintiff. We will appeal to the district court,” said U Hsan Win, husband of one of the convicted farmers.

The Irrawaddy Region Peace and Development Council under the military regime granted the Pa Laung land to Orchard Co., owned by Dr. Myint Sein. No compensation was given to the farmers.

The company built an embankment and dug lakes for fish farming from 2004-05.

The regime in 2007 extended the land use permission by 30 years. As no activity had been carried out for more than 10 years since the confiscation, farmers returned to the land in 2013.

A conflict took place in February 2013 when the police prevented farming. A policeman died and 28 residents were injured.

Nine residents were charged with murder and Maubin District Court jailed them for two to nine years.

The company later used the land management law to sue those convicted and two of the residents are still held in Maubin Prison.

Landless villagers and the original landowners from three villages, including Pa Laung, started to work on the Orchard Co. land with 120 families occupying around 1.2 hectares each.

The company filed a complaint with the Union Parliament’s now-defunct Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission and the military-controlled Defense Ministry. In March 2018 the Irrawaddy regional government confirmed the legality of the company’s land-use permission.

Another 28 farmers sued by the company for working the land are still facing trial in Maubin.