THE wave of unrest sweeping the country over land confiscations has spread to Katha District in Sagaing Region, where residents recently staged a legal protest demanding the return of their land or adequate compensation.
The August 21 protest in Mounggone village tract – home to more than 3000 people in five villages – was expected to attract about 100 people, but drew about 500.
But a senior official in the region dismissed the protest as a political stunt designed to pressure the companies and government to pay more compensation.
As well as calling for the return of their farmland or K10 million an acre compensation, the protesters also called on the authorities to address health, education and security issues related to the confiscation of land.
More than 100,000 acres of land has been confiscated around Mounggone village in Sagaing Region’s Tigyaing township, said U Sein Hla, a Mandalay-based politician and lawyer who helped organise the protest. Residents said they were unsure about the exact amount confiscated, but said it included sugarcane fields as well as paddy fields.
“Farmers are going to change from being owners of the land to just being day labourers, blue-collar workers,” said U Sein Hla, adding that he has already applied for permission to stage three more protests.
“I will fight for them until all the factories have disappeared here or they get enough compensation to survive. If they don’t take notice of this protest, I will file lawsuits against all of the companies, including the Chinese company doing the contract farming.”
But a government official from Katha District disputed this figure in an interview with The Myanmar Times. He said that in 2005, Great Wall took about 100 acres for a sugar factory and plantation, while in 2008 Htoo company received 25 acres for a jetty. Another 36 acres was acquired by Myanmar China Nonferrous Metal Mining Nickel (CNMC) to build a jetty to transport nickel products.
In 2008, CNMC acquired 2000 acres in Sagaing Region and 3000 in Mandalay Region, he said. This was ostensibly for contract farming, although the company operates a mine and smelter in the area.
The senior official from the Katha District General Administration Department said Great Wall also recently applied to the government for more land in the area under a law known as La Na/39. If the application is approved it would allow the land to be used for a purpose other than farming.
He said he wanted to “solve” the dispute through the legal system and added that the residents’ compensation demands were “impossible” to meet. He said compensation had already been paid for the land acquired in 2005 and 2008 and farmers had signed contracts handing over their land.
“I want to solve this problem in accordance with law because the farmers want to get impossible compensation. They are asking for K10 million an acre – that is simply an impossible amount,” the official said.
He insisted that the owners of the land had all received “fair” compensation and that the residents’ interests were the government’s “first priority”.
“All land is taken in accordance with land and forestry laws. We will not bow to the farmers’ political pressure. For the most part this kind of protest benefits politicians and not the farmer. I think the politician standing for farmers has two aims: first he wants to get votes in this area and second he wants to intimidate the business people,” he said.
Residents said the companies that acquired land around Mounggone had paid K70,000 an acre compensation, while U Sein Hla said CNMC had paid a similar amount of comensation.
“I want to get K10 million an acre for my sugar field. After they took our land we faced so many difficulties. We stayed quiet for seven years because we didn’t dare speak out but now we have courage because U Sein Hla appeared to lead us,” said Daw Down, a 50-year-old resident of Mounggone whose six acres of sugarcane were taken for the jetty operated by Htoo company.
But a high-ranking official from Myanmar-registered company Great Wall, which operates the sugar refinery, said its primary concern was the safety of local residents.
“We donated to them about K170 million since we started building the factory,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
“We gave electricity about 150 days a year. And there are more then 1000 workers in our refinery.”
He also said the company had no plans to cave in to the residents’ demands. “We have no problems solving this in the courts if the farmers want to file a suit.”
A high-ranking official from CNMC, who also asked not to be named, said most of the workers at its projects were local residents. “We employ locals rather then Chinese. The rate is three Myanmar workers to one Chinese worker. Our projects are not yet operating, so far we haven’t yet produced anything,” he said.
“Without the sugar and CNMC factories, residents would be facing poverty and unemployment,” he said, adding that the company’s nickel smelter and mine employed about 700 people.
However, Ma Bite, another resident of Mounggone, said CNMC preferred workers who spoke Chinese or were of Chinese descent. “If some accidents occur [in their factory], the compensation they pay is different between Myanmar and Chinese workers. And for most people, if they want a job they have to pay K50,000 [to brokers],” she said.