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Do Burma’s much-maligned farmers have a new hope in the form of the Myanmar Farmers Union (MFU)?
Founded in in 2012 by well-known activist and former political prisoner Su Su Nway, this new union offers advice to victims of land grabs and those embroiled in land disputes.
After the MFU on Tuesday applied for official recognition from Rangoon Division authorities for official registration, DVB spoke to Su Su Nway about the organisation’s aims and future plans.
Q: We understand that MFU applied for official registration with the Rangoon Division government on Tuesday. Did they accept the word ‘union’ in your title?
When we formed the farmers’ union back in 27 July 2012, we first sought registration with township level authorities under the name ‘Farmers Union’. They suggested the word ‘union’ may not get approval and that we should change the name to ‘Farmers Association’. We are now seeking to register with the regional government under the name ‘Myanmar Farmers Union’ – they said they will let us know about any problems they have with it. As for us, all of our members have agreed not to give in to replacing the word ‘union’ with anything else.
Q: In which regions of Burma do you plan to work?
We plan to work nationwide. Our appointed executive members will hold meetings once every two months to organise the union across the country.
Q: What is the aim of establishing the MFU?
According to our organisation structure, we will organise farmers’ unions across the country on village, township, district and regional levels. We aim to deal with farmland disputes in a delicate manner, in accordance with the law, and to provide farmers with technical assistance and human rights education.
Q: Do you see any improvement in the situation for farmers under the current government?
After the Farmland Law and bylaws were adopted on 31 March 2012, the government formed land committees on various administrative levels and began showing more commitment to solving land disputes.
They went on field trips and spoke to farmers about disputes – but that stalled around February 2013 when irregularities were reported in the field trips and they became unfair towards farmers. There were instances where government officials and the land committees instigated disputes between farmers.
Many farmers reacted emotionally to this setback with pubic rallies and plough protests, and they landed in jail. At the same time, the government increased oppression of activists who were providing assistance to the farmers, and subjected them to arrests and jail time. This oppression, beginning in February 2013, has continued to gain more and more traction to this day. I see it as counterproductive.
Q: The government has returned hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland across the country that was previously confiscated, but there is still more left to return. How do you think the land issues can best be resolved?
I suggest to farmers that using dialogue is the most appropriate strategy with the best potential outcome, rather than going to court. When the farmers are on trial, there’s very little we can do for them. Usually the court will drag the case out for a long time, and quite often in the end send them to jail under Penal Code articles 447 and 427 [trespassing and vandalism, respectively]. I believe that they have more chance of successfully resolving a dispute if they use dialogue with patience.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say to the farmers around the country?
Farmers who have not experienced land grabs should not ignore the situation as if it is not their concern. For those who were affected, they not only lost their land, but their family’s livelihood was effectively crippled – they could no longer afford healthcare or education for their children.
The whole community of farmers as a whole should unite and stand in solidarity with those targeted in land grabs, and help them to reclaim their rightful ownership of the land. Only then will there be less land grabs, with the tide turning in their favour.