Tycoon Agrees to Return Confiscated Land

By Hpyo Wai Tha, Land Rights 31 August 2012

RANGOON— After facing the threat of a protest in front of his head office, a Burmese tycoon and Lower House MP hastily struck deals with farmers from Kachin State who filed a lawsuit against his company alleging illegal land confiscations.

Bawk Ja, the land rights activist who led the case, told a press conference in Rangoon on Friday that Yuzana Conglomerate chief Htay Myint invited protesters to Naypyidaw to “make some negotiations” on the case.

Around 20 farmers from war-torn Kachin State, northern Burma, traveled 700 miles to the former capital last week to demand the return of more than 200,000 acres of farmland and orchards which the company seized in 2006 for industrialized mass-farming.

“After several hours of argument, Htay Myint agreed to return nearly 4,000 acres of land that we sued his company for,” said Bawk Ja. The tycoon also agreed to pay compensation for the period when the protesters could not work on the land, she added.

When The Irrawaddy contacted Pu Kyi, one of Yuzana’s directors, for a response, he replied, “I haven’t heard anything yet. No comment.”

Htay Myint is one of Burma’s most powerful tycoons as well as an MP from the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. He is on the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list due to his close ties to the former junta.

Yuzana was first allowed to establish tapioca and sugarcane plantations in fertile Kachin State in 2006. The land is in the vicinity of the world’s largest tiger reserve in the remote Hugawng Valley, according to Kachin Development Networking group. The reserve is around 120 miles northwest of the state capital Myitkyina.

Local farmers were forcibly evicted from fields they had lived and worked on for generations to make way for the project—nearly 50,000 people were made homeless. Their orchards as well as the graveyards where they buried their ancestors were bulldozed.

“We were threatened at gunpoint to leave our land within three days. If not we would be flattened along with our houses,” recalled Kun That Naw Ja, 50, at the press conference. The ethnic Kachin was among a group of 20 farmers who went down to Rangoon for the protest.

“We hope we will regain our land,” said another farmer Ram Ma Nam. “We are poor, uneducated farmers. Our land is the only possession that will be an inheritance for our children.”

Since 2007, the farmers have complained about the land grab and requested compensation to all relevant authorities—including then-junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe—but their pleas fell on deaf ears. In 2010, they brought the matter to courts in Myitkyina and Naypyidaw but the charges were dismissed. They then filed a special appeal on the case late last month.

Bawk Ja said further discussions to settle the case will be held next week when Htay Myint will be free from the current parliamentary session. “As an MP, I hope he will keep his promise,” she said.