August 22, 2014
Farmers from Ngetpyawtine village tract, Kanbalu Township, Sagaing Division, have been instructed by the Township Administrative Office to remove the houses they have built on their own farmland. The administration and the No. 2 Shwe Bo Logistic Battalion have warned the farmers that if they do not dismantle the houses and leave the land, they will be prosecuted.
In 1997, under the military regime, the lands of Ngetpyawtine farmers were confiscated illegally, without due process of law or compensation. The military battalion and Myanmar Economic Corporation wrested this land to establish a sugarcane plantation and a sugar production factory.
Since the 2008 thaw in Burma, while the nation converts from a military to a civilian government, tens of thousands of farmers – such as those in Ngetpyawtine – have lost land to unjust land-grabbing by the military and other departments of government. These victims have been making attempts to wrest control of their land, and protesting the doublespeak and continuing unjust actions of corrupt military officials (For background and recent AHRC documentation of the friction between protesting farmers and corrupt officials, click here, here, &here).
Between 1997 and 2013, the Ngetpyawtine farmers who lost their land to the military have became serfs on their own land. Rather than food for their sustenance they could only grow sugarcane on their land, and for this privilege were forced to pay a tax to the No. 2 Shwe Bo Logistic Battalion. In other words, military officials became akin to feudal lords.
In October 2013, the Burmese Parliament, controlled by a majority of retired military officials, promulgated the "Farmers Rights Protection and Promotion of Interest Law". Apart from other notable clauses that have changed the equation vis-à-vis farmers and the state, this law effectively recognized the possessor of land as owner. As a result, since the passage of the law, attempts by Burmese farmers to possess and farm their confiscated land have risen across the country.
Farmers in Ngetpyawtine village tract likewise took the decision to re-possess their land, building homes on the land and commencing farming crops for their own needs. The military battalion has responded in June 2014 by destroying the crops planted by the farmers. At first, the military said that they were doing "training exercises" on the land and the destruction began. Furthermore, as per the directions of the military and compromised and corrupt officials and judges, many of the farmers have been prosecuted for "trespassing" on their own land and sentenced to prison.
Now the military is destroying the fields without even caring to provide even the "training" excuse. Over 200 soldiers have been destroying the farmers' crops on the confiscated land since July 22, 2014. Out of 13,000 acres, approximately 5,000 acres have already been destroyed.
The No. 2 Shwe Bo Logistic Battalion have threatened more prosecutions for farmers who do not vacate the land, and the township authorities have also pressured the farmers to leave. The farmers have asked authorities to stop the military from destroying their crops. However, the authorities and a township law officer have responded by stating that the farmers do not have documents to prove the lands belong to them. In fact, for some portions of land, the farmers even obtained permission from the government to use the land for their cultivation;, but crops grown on these lands have also been destroyed. Over 450 farmers from the area are being prosecuted (See AHRC-UAC-109-2014), 65 farmers are already in jail, and over 350 farmers are in the "trial process". The farmers are facing immense difficulty under military pressure.
In support of the incarcerated farmers, an attempt was made the day before yesterday, August 20, 2014, to file an appeal in the district court. Lawyer U Thein Than Oo and court clerks prepared the appeal, which the court allowed them to file after normal business hours.
However, before the court accepted the appeal, Central Executive Committee member of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) U Than Tun arrived at the court and told U Thein Than Oo that the court will not hear the appeal, and that it will be heard by the Magway Division Court instead. As the case is of immense interest to USDP, which is the incumbent military-backed party, the party will likely interfere with the appeal when it reaches a divisional court or the Naypyitaw Court. The judge will likely be forced to dismiss the case.
The Asian Human Rights Commission condemns the military of Burma's destruction of the Ngetpyawtine farmers' crops and urges the authorities to amend the order for the removal of their homes. It is the duty of the state to protect the livelihood of the farmers, not to usurp their land and livelihood illegally and then use other illegal and unjust methods to cover for the original crime.
Last week, on 15 August 2014 at Naypyitaw, the President U Thein Sein said "granting land to landless people is an important task in the process of socioeconomic development and reducing poverty". This is just the kind of doublespeak that Burma does not need. The machinery of government is siding with corrupt military officials to make farmers landless, and worse, destroying their homes, and sentencing them for years in prison as common criminals.
If the President says one thing and the military and the courts do the exact opposite, it spells doom not only for the tens of thousands of suffering farmers, but also for the international players chomping at the bit for a piece of the Burma pie.