Land Protest Leaves One Dead, Dozens Injured

Nyein Nyein The Irrawaddy

One policeman is dead and dozens of police and protesters were injured following clashes that broke out on Tuesday over efforts to end a demonstration by farmers demanding the return of confiscated farmland.

According to local officials in Maubin Township, Irrawaddy Division, 27 police and 15 farmers were injured in the melee that erupted after police moved in to break up the protest at around 6 pm on Tuesday.

Ye Kyaw Thu, a policeman who was seriously injured when the protest turned violent, died at a hospital in Rangoon on Wednesday morning.

The protests began last Thursday, when several hundred farmers gathered near an artificial fishpond on 550 acres of land in the village of Palaung in Maubin Township. The farmers say the land was confiscated from them by Burma’s former military junta in 1996 and sold to a company owned by a businessman named Myint Sein in 2004.

According to local sources, regional authorities held a meeting concerning the protest on Tuesday afternoon, after which they declared a curfew and ordered the protesters to disperse. They reportedly said that anyone who did not leave the area by 2 pm would be shot.

However, no action was taken until shortly after 6 pm, when police moved into the crowd. According to Soe Hlaing, a Maubin resident who took part in the talks between the authorities and the farmers, the protesters were the first to lash out.

One of the protesters contradicted this claim, however, saying that the police started hitting a woman when they were in the middle of the crowd, provoking the others to fight back.

Despite the outbreak of violence, around 180 farmers resumed their protest on Wednesday. According to Maung Maung Soe, one of the protesters, around 200 riot police have taken up position in the area.

Aye Thaung, a local administrator, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the security forces had been deployed to maintain security. “As long as we are not attacked, we will not do anything,” he said, adding that no further negotiations were planned.

The police crackdown on the protesters came as a Farmers’ Conference was being held in Rangoon from Feb 25-26. More than 150 farmers’ representatives from across the country participated in the event.

Land protests have taken place in many parts of Burma since the former military regime handed over power to a quasi-civilian government two years ago. Land ownership problems plague many farmers, because under current laws, they rarely have actual ownership of their farmlands, even if their families have used them for generations.

Last July, Burma’s Parliament formed a commission to investigate cases of land grabbing. The commission has since received numerous complaints relating to land confiscation that took place under the former regime.

According to a report by the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar on Wednesday, the government’s Settlement and Land Records Department plans to initiate a farmland ownership registry that will give farmers legal ownership of ancestral lands.

Nan Thiri Lwin contributed reporting.