Jan 15, 2008 (DVB), Farmers in Baw Ne village who cultivated land promised to them by local officials have instead had the land seized by the government and some now face imprisonment.
U Aye Myint, a lawyer and leader of the Guiding Star legal aid group, is handling complaints from a group of villagers who claim they were forced to work the land and later told it belonged to a relative of junta leader senior general Than Shwe.
In 2006, district Peace and Development Council chairman major Maung Maung Kywe and Dike Oo township PDC chairman U Myint Sein came to the village along with other local officials and told the villagers to cultivate an area of scrubland along the Rangoon-Mandalay road.
The officials presented the scheme to the villagers as a preferable alternative to jobs such as making charcoal or cutting bamboo, and promised that if they turned the area into profitable farmland then they would own the land.
Although there were some misgivings from the villagers, the officials assured them that the land would be theirs.
But in 2007, after the villagers had worked the land during the rainy season, they were informed that the land was owned by Phyoe La Wai, nephew of Than Shwe's wife Daw Kyaing Kyaing and owner of the company Myat Min.
When they were told they could no longer farm the land, the villagers refused to move because of the work they had already done cultivating the land.
But when they went to the township PDC and government land measurement department, they denied that the land had been promised to the villagers.
Around 150 acres of land that had already been cultivated has now been seized from ten farmers, who U Aye Myint says were used by the authorities as free labour.
"The authorities, under the influence of Than Shwe's family, tricked the villagers into clearing out their lands with no pay," he said.
Three other villagers who were farming the land have each been sentenced to three months' imprisonment.
Villagers U San Shwe, U Soe Maung and midwife Daw Tin Tin Mar were charged under section 447 of the penal code for criminal trespass in a hearing at Dike Oo township court on 28 December, said U Aye Myint.
"They are not suing all the farmers but only three, perhaps to set an example so that the others will give away their lands more easily," U Aye Myint said.
"But over 300 farmers from the whole village are really disappointed and have been seeking legal advice."
U Aye Myint is now finding witnesses and preparing evidence from the jailed villagers' family members in order to help the villagers bring a forced labour complaint to the International Labour Organisation and report the matter to senior general Than Shwe.
Reporting by Yee May Aung