October 27, 2011 / 8:35 AM / 6 years ago

Myanmar police shut down rare protest

YANGON, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Police in Myanmar halted a demonstration on Thursday by about 60 landless farmers, a rare protest that tests the new civilian government’s commitment to reforms after decades of brutal suppression of dissent.

Riot police confiscated placards and ordered the demonstrators to leave peacefully after they staged a sit-in outside a government building in the country’s biggest city, Yangon, to protest against eviction from their farmland.

“We have approached parliament for help but nothing happened, so we decided to take to the street,” said Pho Phyu, a lawyer and an activist who campaigns for farmers’ rights.

Demonstrations are rare in Myanmar, a country ruled by the military for five decades until an election last year brought in a new civilian government.

The new government has recently made overtures towards the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released more than 200 political prisoners and promised to pursue social and economic reforms.

Previous protests over high prices in 1988 and 2007 were brutally suppressed by the military, leading to the imposition of western sanctions that have restricted development and hurt the country’s economic elite.

Pho Phyu said the authorities had seized about 10,000 acres (4,050 hectares) of land owned by about 1,000 farmers, who were given only small amount of compensation.

“At first, they promised that joint-venture farming would be carried out between the farmers and private businessmen on these lands but nothing happened,” he said.

President Thein Sein has pledged to offer micro loans and price guarantees to raise living standards for millions of farmers in a country that depends on agriculture for about 40 percent of its gross domestic product.

About half of the Burmese workforce is employed in the agriculture sector and the country was once the world’s biggest rice exporter. But evictions are common and farmers have little money or legal recourse to launch any challenge.

Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Martin Petty and Yoko Nishikawa

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