Myanmar's farmers face criminal charges over land rights

AP News
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Posted: Nov 03, 2016 7:04 AM

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Despite the process of democratic transition, farmers in Myanmar's Karen state are being pushed off their land and face arrest and prison for standing up for their rights, an international watchdog reported Thursday.

A report by Human Rights Watch shed light on land confiscation in Myanmar, which has escalated in recent years with the military and armed groups driving people from their land. Eastern Karen state, on the border with Thailand, has been engulfed in conflict between Myanmar's troops and ethnic rebels for more than half a century, resulting in massive displacements of villagers.

Well-connected business owners, militia leaders, and government officials exploit land laws and regulatory weakness to obtain land from farmers who have been long using it, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.

The Southeast Asian nation's 70 percent of the population live off agriculture and depend on land for survival.

The Assistant Association for Political Prisoners, a pressure group, said that more than 40 farmers were on trial while three have been sentenced to three to five years' imprisonment on charges of protesting usurpation of their land rights.

They are among 98 "political prisoners" and 104 political activists on trial in Myanmar, said Kyaw Soe, the group's assistant manager.

Aung San Suu Kyi's government, which took office more than five months ago following five decades of military rule, has not responded to any of the particular cases, Human Rights Watch said.

The state government in Karen did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on Thursday.

"The authorities has not been able to solve any of the land grab issue in Karen state until now, because they have no powerful influence on the military or any armed groups and this is a great loss for many farmers," said Naw Ohn Hla, a prominent human rights defender and land rights activist.

When civilians flee their homes to escape conflict, militias operating under the central government, police or local authorities usually confiscate the land, he said.

The government's repressive laws on freedom of expression have suppressed dissent among farmers, who have no other form of recourse, the report said.