Farmers from Dekkhinathiri township in Nay Pyi Taw are again facing charges under forestry laws, after an earlier case against them was thrown out because the plaintiff failed to attend court.
The case has been filed at the behest of a number of companies, including Yuzana and Dagon, that confiscated the land from the farmers in Kuhnitlonese village earlier this year in murky circumstances.
Virtually all residents in the village, except for those under 18, have been charged under section 40(a) of the Forestry Law for illegally residing in forest areas.
If found guilty they face a prison term, a fine or both.
“This is the second time [we’ve been charged]. In June, we had to come to the Zabuthiri Township Court because we were summoned. At that time there were 63 defendants but the plaintiff from the Forestry Department didn’t come regularly so the judge, Daw Cho Cho Win, threw out the case. When we were charged again with the same section but instead of only 63 people all those over 18 years were included,” Ko Zaw Linn Aung told The Myanmar Times in front of the Zabuthiri Township Court on September 13.
U Khin Maung Zaw, the lawyer acting for the 125 villagers, said the plaintiff from the Department of Forestry, U Soe Win, told the court during a hearing last week that “some of the land involved in the case does not belong to forest department but to the [Ministry of Agriculture]”.
“Some other land is in an agriculture and livestock breeding zone project area. So the situation right now is a little confusing,” U Khin Maung Zaw said.
He said that after three days of hearing ended on September 19, staff from the Forestry Department went to the village and took photos of the homes of the defendants.
“Forestry Department officials asked some of the defendants to come to the department on September 21 so they may negotiate something with them,” he said.
The farmers said their families had been cultivating the land in question for generations until, in early 2011, about 700 acres were acquired by Yuzana, Dagon International, Win and KMT companies on the pretext of growing plantation crops.
Fields were levelled with bulldozers and surrounded by tall fences, inside which sugarcane, seintalone mango and dragon fruit were grown. The villagers were allowed to remain in the area and continue to cultivate land away from the plantations but in June the Forestry Department filed charges at the behest of the companies, the farmers said.
“When they arrived … the workers who operated the bulldozers and the company employees accompanying them told us we would be given replacement land or compensation. They said it was an official project but there were no signs showing it had anything to do with the government. Just a sign that read, ‘No admittance’,” said Ko Min Tun, one of the defendants.
“They haven’t yet asked us to leave or move … and we dared not say anything against [the companies],” he said.
Ko Zaw Linn Aung said the residents of Kuhnitlonese village had “tried to stop them” but the workers from the companies threatened to bulldoze their homes along with the farmland.
“When we asked whether it was a government project or for the company, they said we would get compensation either way. Now not only did we get no compensation but we have also been charged twice,” Ko Zaw Linn Aung said.
“What we would like to happen is for the companies to make clear when the land was confiscated and for which state project, and what kind of compensation we will receive, either in land or otherwise,” he said.
In some cases the farmers received compensation, however, with Yuzana in April paying K350,000 for each acre of paddy taken and K250,000 for each acre of other farmland. The farmers said they accepted because they didn’t realise how far below the market rate it was – paddy field sells for K3 million an acre in the area, while other farmland fetches K1.5 million an acre. When Dagon International and Win Company offered the same amount of compensation to farmers early this month, the farmers rejected it, they said.
“We didn’t reach an agreement and the companies said we should obey what the government decides. After that, we were charged,” said one of the villagers who attended court.
The filing of the charges coincides with the recent submission of a motion to standardise farmland in forest areas so that it can be officially cultivated. Pyithu Hluttaw representative for Gangaw, U Aung Myint, sponsored the motion on September 5 – the second last day of the fourth Pyithu Hluttaw session – and MPs agreed to discuss it.
But before it could be discussed, Pyithu Hluttaw Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann ordered the ministries of forestry and agriculture and irrigation to negotiate with the parliamentary committee on agriculture and land ownership issues to resolve the problem.
The speaker said farmers often lost their land because the reality on the ground – the way land is being used – is different from that registered on government ownership maps.
He said in cases where land is incorrectly classified as vacant or forest land and awarded to private firms negotiations should take place to ensure farmers are not left without compensation or employment.
“Many problems are arising in our country because the people concerned just look at the maps but don’t check the fields to see whether the maps are correct. ... These cases need to be solved by assessing the real situation on the ground and negotiating with the relevant stakeholders,” the speaker said.
“What we would like to happen is the lawsuit to be withdrawn and for us to be employed by the companies to work on their land and, whether it is a government project or not,for a reasonable amount of compensation to be given to those who lost their land,” said one of the defendants.
– Translated by Thit Lwin