Feb 23, 2010 (DVB)-Eleven Burmese farmers whose controversial sentencing last year after a land dispute with the Burmese junta received widespread attention have been released from prison early.
The farmers, from Aunglan in central Burma’s Magwe division, are now back at home after judges last week reduced their sentences to four months, according to one of the farmers, Than Soe.
Their case had been taken up by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which monitors land dispute and forced labour cases in Burma.
The ILO had repeatedly expressed concern at the hefty prison sentences, including one of five years’ with hard labour, given to the farmers who were deemed guilty of trespassing after returning to work on land confiscated by the Burmese junta.
Pho Phyu, one of the lawyers defending the farmers, was also sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by the same Magwe division court in March 2009 after being charged under the Unlawful Associations Act.
"I didn’t know we were going to be released. The prison’s officials informed us that they received [release] warrants and we had to sign some papers," said Than Soe, adding that prison officials collected family details before releasing them.
He also said that the eleven were warned against contact with foreign media; one of the key reasons why they were imprisoned in the first place.
Eight other people, including Pho Phyu and National League for Democracy (NLD) member Zaw Htay, remain in prison. The majority of the eight had simply assisted the farmers in lodging the complaint with the ILO.
In March last year the farmers won a dispute over the 2000 acres of confiscated land following a meeting between the ILO and government officials. The land had been taken after the farmers refused to bow to government pressure to grow sugarcane for army-run Aunglan township’s sugar factory in 2007.
In July last year they were sued by the sugar factory and sentenced on charges of trespassing and damage to property, which contradict the March 2007 agreement reached between the ILO and central government.
The ILO last month extended its ‘supplementary understanding’ with the Burmese junta, which acts as a mechanism to ensure that those who complain to the ILO about forced labour and land disputes receive no recrimination from the junta.
Reporting by Nan Kham Kaew