Farmers' land dispute with Myanmar military a test for Suu Kyi's government

Detained farmers in a holding cell at a courthouse in Sintgaing in Mandalay region, Myanmar, on Jan 10, 2017.
Detained farmers in a holding cell at a courthouse in Sintgaing in Mandalay region, Myanmar, on Jan 10, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (REUTERS) - Farmers locked in a land dispute with Myanmar's armed forces pledged to renew their fight after being released from jail on Friday (Jan 20), in a case testing leader Aung San Suu Kyi's resolve to challenge the military's economic interests.

Mr Maw Maw Oo, a leader among the 55 villagers released, said they would seek government help to resolve the dispute in Ye Bu, a village in eastern Myanmar's Shan State.

Ms Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy came to power in April after an election victory in part driven by rural anger over land seizures under military rule.

But the Ye Bu case showed that farmers across the country were yet to see significant changes, despite hopes the civilian administration led by Nobel laureate Suu Kyi would prioritise land issues.

Ye Bu farmers say they were promised they could work the land near the village in perpetuity, before it was seized by soldiers in 2004.

"The military didn't make any profit for the country although they grabbed land," said Mr Maw Maw Oo, who was among those released on Friday after serving their one-month prison sentences for trespassing. "They just make profit for themselves and give the farmers trouble."

Farmers told Reuters they were now reluctant to return to their farmland out of fear of being jailed again. But Mr Maw Maw Oo said they would not give up.

The army's Eastern Command controls a 1,618-hectare plot near Ye Bu and has sought to establish agri-businesses with private firms, including Asia's largest agricultural conglomerate, Charoen Pokphand Group of Thailand.

An army official filed dozens of lawsuits against farmers for returning to work the land, leading to the jailing on Dec 22 of 72 farmers, including Mr Maw Maw Oo.

Officials had attempted to broker a deal between the military and the farmers, but could not persuade the army to make concessions.

Mr Soe Nyunt Lwin, the state-level planning and finance minister, told Reuters he would press on with more negotiations. "I don't want them in prison again, that would be nonsense,"he said.

Ye Bu farmer Myo Aung told Reuters the army had become more assertive over the land since last month's court verdicts. "The military now has the upper hand because they won the lawsuit," he said.

The Eastern Command's Major Aung Htwe said 18 "squatters" whose homes are on military-controlled land in Ye Bu were served eviction notices on Jan 13.

Troops also began digging a boundary ditch to demarcate the 4,000 acres, Maj Aung Twe added, promising that he would continue to use the courts to prevent farmers from returning to the land.