BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Myanmar court has found 33 farmers living next to a large-scale development zone guilty of criminal trespass, a ruling seen by activists as a blow to land rights in a country with a rising demand for property for industrial use.
The farmers said the government did not follow legal rules when it tried to acquire their land adjacent to the project, known as Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ), in 1996, and that they continued to farm the land and pay taxes on it.
For developing nations like Myanmar - which emerged from decades of economic isolation in 2011 when the military stepped back from direct control of the country - the zones are a way of attracting foreign investment and creating jobs.
Lawyers for the farmers, who were charged with criminal trespass in 2014, argued the charges had no basis as the government did not begin a formal legal process to acquire the land until 2015.
“Today’s ruling represents a blow to the land rights of farmers across Myanmar,” said Ben Hardman, a deputy legal director at advocacy group EarthRights International.
The Thilawa SEZ, in the country’s south, is the first such project developed by the government, and includes an industrial park that covers about 600 hectares out of around 2,500 hectares earmarked for the project.
Disputes over land have increased significantly since the easing of political and economic restrictions began in 2011, activists say.
The reforms led to a rush of foreign investments and greater demand for land for industrial use in Myanmar, where about 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas and depends on agriculture for a living.
Few farmers have formal documents for their land and even if they do, titles do not provide adequate protection, and people are frequently forced off of their farms without proper legal process or compensation, activists say.
Government officials say projects including mining, hydropower and large-scale agriculture are essential for development in one of the world’s poorest countries.
The government recently introduced a national land use policy to give farmers more rights, and has adopted dispute resolution mechanisms.
But transactions are often characterized by a lack of consultation and consent from affected communities, inadequate compensation, the absence of a resettlement policy and a lack of judicial remedies, activists say.
Alongside, arrests and prosecution of protesters and land activists have risen.
The reforms “offer little or no protections to tenant farmers and do not protect customary land use,” Hardman said.
“Worryingly, a series of proposed amendments actually increases both the scope of criminal offences and the length of sentences that farmers could be given,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The farmers have 60 days to file an appeal, and are considering whether to do so, said Hardman.
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie and Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.