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Around 200 farmers from Rangoon, Pegu and Irrawaddy divisions called on President Thein Sein and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to return the vast swathes of land that have been confiscated across the country, during a protest in front of Rangoon’s City Hall on Tuesday.
The demonstration comes as officials struggle to respond to one of the most turbulent issues facing the reformist government amid growing concern that authorities are cracking down on farmers engaged in a widely popular form of public defiance known as plough protests.
Protest organiser Win Cho said the government must address the direst cases first.
“Everyone faces hardship, but I would like to urge [the government] to prioritise assisting those who are in the worst situation,” said Win Cho.
Farmer Htun Htun Win, from Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar township who participated in Tuesday’s demonstration, said a small amount of farmers have been able to reach settlements over land disputes with the assistance of a parliament-backed land commission. However, the farmer said more negotiations were needed to address the growing scourge.
“There have been examples with some cases where settlements were reached between farmers and companies in disputes following negotiations assisted by the [parliament-back Land Grab Investigation] Commission,” said Htun Htun Win.
“We are here to call for negotiations, but are not trying to claim back all the land.”
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP-B), more than 100 farmers and activists were slapped with charges in June.
“We learnt that 149 activists were pressed with charges in the month of June with around 70 already on trial,” said AAPP-B spokesperson Khin Cho Myint during an interview with DVB this week.
“There were far too many farmers pressed with charges [in June] as well as activists who provide them assistance.”
The news follows reports that police arrested the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s executive officer, Min Swe, in Pegu division’s Taungoo over the weekend for participating in a plough protest in Mandalay division’s Tharsi township last April.
On Sunday, Min Swe was sent to a detention centre in Tharsi township, where farmers have called for the return of more than 7,000 acres of farmland that was confiscated 25 years ago.
According to Thandaw resident U Lin, a local farmer who visited Min Swe in detention has also been arrested.
“Min Swe was arrested on [7 July] in Taungoo and sent to Tharsi overnight where he is now incarcerated,” said U Lin. “The next day, residents in Thandaw went to see him in custody to bring him food and blankets, and police arrested one of them.”
Following April’s plough protests in Tharsi, authorities arrested activist Thandar Aung from Moehti Moemi Civil Society Network for aiding the farmers and issued warrants for two other activists – All Burma Federation of Student Union members Aye Min Myat and San Ei Phyu. Fifteen local farmers were also hit with charges in Tharsi, including trespassing and sedition.
According to a report published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, about 1.9 million acres of land have been illegally transferred to private businesses in the past two decades in Burma, “even though 70 percent of that land has never been developed and is still used for farming by the original owners”.
While Burma’s farmers have been feeling increasingly empowered during the two years of quasi-civilian rule in the country, the growing crisis over land issues only made international headlines after authorities launched a pre-dawn assault on a protest camp at Latpadaung Copper Mine in Sagaing division last November.
Locals and activists have been calling for the closure of the mine – a joint venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and Wanbao, a subsidiary to a Chinese arms manufacturer, which they claim is responsible for the confiscation of about 7,800 acres of farmland in total and displaced farmers from 66 villages.
In June, civil society groups sent an open letter to President Thein Sein demanding the release Aung Soe, Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San who were arrested in April for organising popular protests opposing the mine.
According to the letter, the activists have been subjected to myriad human rights violations “including prolonged incommunicado detention and denial of due process of law, in addition to their initial arbitrary arrest”.
-Additional reporting provided by Su Su Hlaing and Naw Noreen.