Land Rights in Myanmar – Life is Not Sweet!

Recently, our staff had the opportunity to talk with villagers in Sagaing division, Kanbalu township who are farmers currently defending rights to their land in court. They are working with a lawyer who Partners Asia has supported through our Rule of Law program.

To protect the villagers’ identities, we have changed their names. Hopefully interview below sheds some light for our readers on the issues faced by tens of thousands of farmers in Myanmar.

To provide some context for the interview, here is a little background on the court structure they are trying to navigate:

In 2013, the government established a Land Commission in parliament to receive complaints by farmers. The commission has no power to resolve disputes, though, it can only receive information. A recent report by the Commission (September 2014) noted that it had received 26,371 complaints, and of these only 9.5% had been investigated. For more information on these cases see also the Asian Human Rights Commission appeal.

“The land in our four villages was grabbed in 1997 and in 1999 to create a Sugar Cane plantation. A total of 13,000 acres were grabbed. We have worked in those lands for a long time, more than 20-30 years. One of us has land tax document from since 10 -year-old age. Now our lands are fenced off and we cannot even step in.

Who grabbed the land? It is the military. They even harvested the sugar cane that we grew. They want to say that the land has no sugar cane. What a cunning idea!

But then, in June 2013, General Min Zaw said they would give the land back to owners. So we got a chance to farm our lands in 2012-13. This year, we continue to grow. But now our fields were unlawfully harvested by them. Moreover 56 farmers are arrested with Section 447 (1). And a further 224 farmers are also arrested and cases taken against them.

Who took accused them? Not only military! Tenant local farmers as well! You see, the military gave the land they took to other local farmers who they are familiar with or who are their relatives, after they grabbed from us. Those tenant farmers did not want to give back to us. So they sued 173 people and the military sued the rest of them. Now 224 farmers are facing Section 447 now. We are in that list. One of the accused is only 16 years old.

Let me tell you about U Kyaw Soe! He was in the list of 56 farmers who are now in jail. His wife is paralyzed. He owns two dogs. Just two dogs! But he was accused of “Mischief’ (2) – they said his cattle entered and ate the tenant farmers’ products. He has no cows! How can this be?!? We will try to make an appeal for those arrested farmers. Some of them were sentenced for three years. It should not be like that.

Let me go back to our land history. Long ago, those lands may have been vacant lands. Our fathers cleared the lands and made our plantations. We have worked more than 20 to 30 years on this land. When they grabbed, they came and took a picture with some trees, trying to show that the land is vacant (uncultivated) land. But actually, to make it worse, when they first took the land in 1996-97, some officials came to us and asked for land tax documents so that the farmers would be able to apply for getting back their lands. But they cheated! They took our documents and never gave them back.

After we lost our lands, our lives changed a lot. Many of us became farm labors. Some of us have to go to forest and make charcoal. The government say we will be able to work in sugar cane factory. It is true, but we can only be day workers with no security of employment because we have no education. We also have debt. In June 2014, the military officials said they will retain only 5,508 acres officially, and they will give back the rest of the lands. The tenant farmers and the original landowner farmers should be distributed equally, they proposed. We do not like this proposal. That is our land! We should get it all. Or those tenant farmers should get only few. As you know, those tenant farmers and us live together in the same village. But our relationship is broken. The military made us fight each other. Now we cannot even go easily to other villages because of soldiers, they made us suspicious and hate each other. Debt! Injustice! Unfair! Life is not sweet!”

As mentioned above, Partners Asia is supporting these farmers through our Rule of Law program. Our partners are training lawyers, building networks for sharing information, documenting court cases, and helping move these cases through the court system.

(1) Section 447 of the Myanmar Penal Code (1860) “Whoever commits criminal trespass shall be punished with imprisonment…for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to 500 rupees, or with both.”

(2) Section 425/6 of the Myanmar Penal Code (1860) “Whoever, with intent to cause wrongful loss or damage to the public or to any person, causes the destruction of any property…commits ‘mischief’. …[and] shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or both.”