Eighteen farmers in Kanbalu, Sagaing Division, have been sentenced to jail terms of up to three and half years for ploughing seized lands, a newly popular form of protest in Burma.
More than 300 farmers in Kanbalu faced various charges for working land in Ngapyawtine village last March. The farmers say the land was confiscated by the Burmese military in the 1990s.
According to Ko Gyi, a member of a network that liaises between farmers and the International Labour Organisation, 18 of those charged have now received jail terms.
“The court handed out three-month terms to each – one of the defendants was facing 12 different charges and was sentenced to three and half years in total,” said Ko Gyi.
Many others still await a verdict, and more than 20 different types of charges have been brought against them, he said. Some of the protestors are being sued by tenant farmers that were hired by the army to work the confiscated lands, which are now used to produce sugar cane.
Khin Htay Myint, a farmer from Myemon village in Kanbalu, said that nine villagers — including herself — have been summoned for police questioning.
“We were summoned by Myemon police, but they refused to say why and said they will tell us when we get to the police station. We have not gone in yet,” said Khin Htay Myint.
Villagers say the disputed land was confiscated by the military in the 1990s, and that it is managed by the 13th and 16th Light Infantry Battalions, which operate under the Burma Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion.
On Monday, the first sentences were handed down in the case; three farmers received three-year sentences for charges including trespassing and vandalism.
The transition to a nominally civilian government in 2011, which ushered in a new nationwide land policy and marginally greater freedoms of expression, opened the floodgates for complaints about land seizures that occurred under the previous military regime. Plough protests have become extremely popular among farmers whose lands were lost, though the past two years have shown the government’s limited tolerance for unauthorised occupation of land.