Myanmar Farmers Protest Decade-old Land Grab in Kachin State

Farmers who were victims of land expropriations in the Hukaung region of northern Myanmar’s Kachin state protested on Thursday against the company that took more than 270,000 acres from them a decade ago, local residents said.

Local residents and farmers from 20 villages in three of the region’s townships-Hpakant, Mongkaung, and Tanaing-attended the Farmers’ Day rally in Warazut village.

The rally was directed against Yuzana Company Ltd., a Myanmar conglomerate owned by business tycoon Htay Myint, who was previously on the United States sanctions list that bans American companies from doing business with certain foreign individuals or firms.

Htay Myint is one of Myanmar’s “cronies”-wealthy and well-connected business scions with ties to military-backed enterprises-who have contributed to Myanmar’s reputation as a poor investment destination.

“We held today’s event with the intention of getting our land back as well as to celebrate Farmers’ Day and to express our feelings about losing our land because of Yuzana Company,” said Nashee Aung Lat, a farmer from Warazut village.

Villagers at the time had no choice but to accept compensation they say was insufficient, while some received no money at all.

Yuzana, which operates in the agriculture, construction, hospitality, real estate and fishery sectors, seized the farmland for large-scale agricultural production, including cassava and sugarcane plantations, in 2007 when Myanmar was under the rule of a military junta.

Farmers who lost land filed a lawsuit against the company in 2013 in a bid to get it back. Yuzana later responded by filing a countersuit.

In May 2016, more than 8,000 villagers sent a written request to the new civilian-led government that came to power a month before, urging it to help in addressing their dispute with Yuzana, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported at the time.

Farmers’ Day, also known as Peasants’ Day, is a March 2 annual public holiday in Myanmar honoring those who work in the country’s agricultural industry.

About 70 percent of Myanmar’s population of 54 million people make their living as farmers.

March 2 also marks the day 55 years ago when a military coup led by General Ne Win came to power, ushering in the political dominance of the armed forces. An oppressive military junta ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 2011.

Letpadaung land dispute

In a related development, the Sagaing regional government in northwestern Myanmar has submitted complaints by farmers in the town of Letpadaung who lost land to a controversial copper mine operated by a Chinese company to the national government to resolve, a local official said.

Letpadaung farmers have long protested land takeovers in 2014 and 2015 by the mine project operated by China’s Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. Company and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL), a Myanmar army-owned conglomerate.

They met with Sagaing Chief-Minister Myint Naing on Feb. 25 to discuss roughly 2,000 acres of land for which they have not received compensation from Wanbao.

The company wants to pay them a limited annual amount as compensation for lost land and crops, but the farmers are demanding 700,000 kyats (U.S. $517) per acre for this year and compensation for future years, said Myint Kyi, Sagaing’s municipal minister.

“Farmers want compensation for the years they can’t work on their lands,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Some can’t work for four years, some for three years,” he said. “The company said it can’t do this.”

“The regional government can’t decide how to resolve their disagreement over the compensation amount because the company made the agreement with the previous government,” he said. “That’s why we transferred the case to the Union government yesterday.”

A parliamentary inquiry commission on the Letpadaung project called for more transparency in Wanbao’s land appropriation process and for police riot-control training in the wake of a violent raid on protesters at the mine site in 2012.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s current de facto leader who led the commission, accused the government of former President Thein Sein of ignoring the body’s recommendations to improve conditions at the mine, saying these had sparked clashes in December 2014 between police and farmers trying to prevent Wanbao employees from fencing off land for the project.

The incident left one farmer dead and dozens injured.

Last month nearly 100 Letpadaung residents blocked the road to the mine and demanded that Wanbao give them the 1,900 acres of the land they were supposed to receive according to the recommendations of a parliamentary commission.

Police later charged 25 farmers with blocking trucks loaded with copper from leaving the mine.

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