More than a hundred farmers in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta region took to the streets on Thursday, demanding that the authorities return plots of lands which they said were forcibly confiscated from them by a construction company and the Burmese military.
The rice farmers, from five village tracts in Pathein Township, Irrawaddy Division, said that since 2000, they have been pressured to sell their lands at far below their market value to the Yuzana Company, owned by Htay Myint, a Burmese tycoon on a US sanctions blacklist for his close ties to the country’s top military leadership.
The company is now using the land to breed fish and prawns, the farmers said, adding that in 2006, more of their land was taken from them without compensation by units of the Burmese air force.
The farmers marched in a procession to the head office of local government authorities, where they submitted a letter stating that the unjust confiscation of their lands had robbed them of their livelihoods and left them jobless. The letter also demanded that the authorities help to resolve their current predicament.
Such protests are rare in Burma and often face violent crackdowns by the government. In this case, however, the local authorities told the farmers that their complaints would be examined and the issue would be resolved through proper negotiations within three days.
“We have to decide whether we should go back to our village or not after we know if we’ll get our lands back or receive proper compensation,” said one of the farmers who joined the march.
The protest came at a time when the nominally civilian administration that took office in March is claiming that one of its top priorities is fighting abject poverty in the country and reforming the country’s dismal economy.
The delta region was devastated by the powerful Cyclone Nargis in 2008, killing around 140,000 people and leaving millions homeless. (According to information recently leaked by WikiLeaks, the government estimated the disaster left at least 300,000 dead.)
Among the worst hit by the cyclone were farmers, many of whom were driven into great debt, said development experts.
A local rights group helping the farmers in the region said cases of forced land confiscation by companies close to the government officials have become frequent in the past 10 years.
“The farmers are now in straitened conditions because of these injustices. Once they were landowners, but now they work for daily wages on those lands,” said Myit Naing, an activist from the rights group.