Farmers in Thilawa, Myanmar Defend Land Rights in Court and Fight Trespass Charges
Myanmar language version attached below.
Myanmar Legal Coordinator, EarthRights International
+95 997 421 1282
March 21, 2018, Yangon, Myanmar – Today, 33 farmers attended a Myanmar court to see their lawyers argue that criminal trespass charges against the farmers have no basis and they should be acquitted.
These 33 farmers have struggled to hold onto their land in Thida Myaing Village, near Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ), for over two decades and as a result were charged with criminal trespass. EarthRights International (ERI) works with communities affected by the Thilawa SEZ and in surrounding areas and has been supporting these 33 farmers. The lawyers filed final arguments today at the Kyauktan Township Court.
The Myanmar government first tried to seize the 33 farmers’ land in 1996 when the Urban and Housing Development Department (UHDD), a department under the Ministry of Construction, attempted to confiscate the land. The UHDD failed to follow the proper legal process and paid the farmers very little compensation – only a fraction of market price for the land. The UHDD then tried to transfer the land to the Myanmar Port Authority and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). The farmers continued to work on the land and, in 2014, MEC filed a complaint against them alleging criminal trespass for doing so.
“They told us that whether we took the money or not, they would take our land,” said U Zaw Htun, one of the defendants. “But since we saw no project come in, we continued to farm our land. We worked on it and paid taxes.”
The 33 farmers have fought these charges in court, claiming that they still own the lands on which they have worked and paid taxes. In April 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notice that the land was to be acquired for the Ministry of Defence for use by MEC. This notice is the first stage of the formal legal process to acquire land, as required by the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. Though this seems to confirm the farmers’ defense that the land was theirs and they had no intent to trespass, MEC and the law officer (the state prosecutor) have continued the criminal trespass case against the farmers.
Myanmar has a long history of land grabs with farmers frequently being forced off of their land without proper legal process.
“If these 33 farmers cannot successfully defend themselves against these trespass charges, when the land acquisition process began after they had been charged, it is difficult to see how any farmers in Myanmar faced with such charges can do so,” said Ben Hardman, Myanmar Legal Coordinator at ERI.