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350 Mandalay farmers facing court over land grabs

Men travel on ox carts through a cornfield on the banks of the Irrawaddy River outside Mandalay on 4 March 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Some 350 farmers from Burma’s Mandalay Division are facing court cases related to land-grabbing, most of them brought since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government took power a year ago, lawyers and activists said Thursday.

Anger among the rural poor over rampant seizures of land under the former military government that ran the country for half a century was a key factor that helped propel Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to power.

But Burma’s first elected government in a generation has failed to make good on its promise to strengthen protection for farmers, who make up around 70 percent of the population.

Most land seizures in Burma date from the 1990s and early 2000s, with activists deeming military officers and their businessmen cronies responsible for grabbing large tracts and sometimes loaning them to private companies to be cultivated.

Lawyer San Nyunt Wai said more than 15 farmers were currently in jail awaiting trial over cases brought in a dozen townships in Mandalay Division — the majority of them over the past year.

“Mostly they are being brought by the army and the cronies,” he told AFP, referring to businessmen who have leveraged links to the military to carve up sections of the economy.

“The farmers were charged mostly under sections 427 and 448, which cover causing ‘mischief’ and trespassing.”

Few farmers have documents to prove they have any rights to the land they farm.

Activists were planning to hold a demonstration in Mandalay on Friday, expecting to draw some 2,000 people.

Ko Lin, the chairman of the regional farmers’ federation, said disillusion with the new government was deepening.

“Farmers are feeling more bitter against this new government as more farmers are being sued without any defence,” he told AFP, confirming that 350 farmers were facing trial.

“If the government can’t solve these problems, farmers will protest.”

Analyst David Mathieson said the issue reflected the government’s failure to strengthen land laws and end disputes fairly.

“The NLD at a national and local level have not pursued the democratic change they were elected on, particularly on ending land-grabs,” he said.

A report by campaign group Land in Our Hands claimed 5,000 acres (2,025 hectares) were confiscated from farmers in Mandalay Division in 2010 alone.

Last month authorities in the region said they planned to confiscate some 40,000 acres of unused farmland.