Tensions are high in Rangoon’s Dagon Port township after authorities cordoned off a piece of property claimed by local farmers last Friday as Thein Sein’s government struggles to address the rash of ongoing land disputes across the country.
According to Hla Htay, who is one of 13 local farmers affected by the land grab in Mahtasu village, about 50 government and police officials arrived at their farm at dawn on 5 July and proceeded to seize the 100 acres of land by putting up a barbed wire fence around it.
The farmer claims that the authorities, which were working with a private company, had been pressuring locals to vacate the land that they had been working since the monsoon season commenced last month.
The government’s Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development said the land was allegedly confiscated in 1995, but locals returned to cultivate the property last year.
“When we began working the land on 18 June, township authorities and the company’s manager came and tried to stop us – they told us to bring down our farm hut, but we refused since the monsoon has arrived and we were working on the land we’ve owned for generations,” said Hla Htay.
“Aroud 5 am in the morning [last Friday], around 50 authorities and police went onto the farmland and demolished the hut – they also blocked the entrance to the farm with a rock pillar.”
Hla Htay said villagers have all the paperwork necessary to prove their ownership of the property and are looking to take the dispute to a court.
“The farmers said they want their land back under legal terms and that they can absolutely not accept the unlawful seizure of it by the authorities,” said the National League for Democracy’s local chair in the township Than Myaing.
Following more than two years of reforms, land rights have become one of the most tempestuous issues in Burma as farmers begin to challenge authorities over property that was appropriated by the military and crony-connected companies during nearly five decades of junta rule.
According to a report published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, approximately 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”.