Scenes of protest in Myanmar were for years followed by inevitable violence by the authorities, a response that had become automatic in a country ruled by military force for half a century. But earlier this month the country’s new, military-dominated parliament passed a law permitting protests for the first time. And farmers in Myanmar are already using their new-found rights. Following allegations of land-grabbing by companies on the outskirts of Yangon, on Friday 300 farmers held banners calling for their farmland to be returned in Dagon Seikkan Township, an industrial area in the eastern part of the city center. Phyo Phyu, a lawyer who represents farmers, said reforms in the country mean it has become possible to discuss problems freely. This should also extend to the rights of farmers, he added, who make up nearly two-thirds of Myanmar’s population of 60 million people. “We are demanding these companies return confiscated land to farmers for the sake of the farmers themselves as well as for the whole country,” said Phyo Phyu. Protests are still considered unchartered territory in Myanmar which means rules remain unclear. Although the farmers sought and received permission from the authorities to protest from last Tuesday, only 300 of 900 farmers who requested to take part were allowed to do so. Still, the dozen or so policemen watching close by remained bystanders throughout the two-hour demonstration. Traditionally, security forces have intimidated and arrested protesters, or even worse in some cases such as during the saffron revolution in September 2007 when soldiers fired at monks and shot dead a Japanese journalist in Yangon. Other tactics have included video-taping political protesters which are spied upon later and then often rounded up, usually in the dead of night. “Now we can protest according to the law,” said Myint Aung, a farmers’ representative from Nyaungbin village in Dagon Seikkan Township. “It makes us feel good to get the chance to express our free will.” Their protest against construction firms including Max Myanmar, which is owned by Zaw Zaw, a tycoon that remains on the US sanctions list, follows similar demonstrations in Yangon earlier last week targeting Zaykabar Company, another property firm accused of land grabbing which is run by Khin Shwe, a member of the lower house of parliament. Although the new protest law has put these prominent business people in an unfamiliar position versus poor farmers in the country, five farmers still face a lawsuit for demonstrating in front of the Housing Department in Yangon in October before the legislation was passed, says Myint Aung. Maung Nyo, a farming community leader from Thayetpin Chaung village also in Dagon Seikkan Township, said that authorities have sanctioned land-grabbing by the private sector. In some cases this has meant farmers have witnessed companies destroying their crops, he added. “We have nothing to eat so we demand to be able to farm on our own land,” said Maung Nyo. “Without a farm and food, how can a farmer live?”
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