Troops loyal to Myanmar’s junta have forced the residents of nearly 200 homes in Mandalay region to relocate at gunpoint, villagers said Wednesday, underscoring how a military that once sought to justify rights violations through questionable legal means has enjoyed near-total impunity since seizing power.
Residents of Sintgu township told RFA’s Myanmar Service that around 40 armed soldiers entered Ngwe Daung, Nyaung Wun and Ye Htut villages on Sept. 24, demanding that they dismantle their homes and relocate within a week because they had “encroached on military land.”
A resident of Ye Htut, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal, said that when villagers complained, they were told that they could “set up temporary tents in the fields” and stay for a week until they had harvested their crops, but would have to leave when they had finished.
“All the villagers were afraid and did not want to stay in the area,” despite having nowhere to relocate to, the resident said.
“Because they feared the army, they dismantled their houses and piled them up … [some villagers] are taking shelter in schools. Most houses have already been taken down, but the bigger ones are not finished yet.”
The evicted villagers claim they cleared the land in the early 1990s, at which point they began raising crops and paying taxes to the government but were forced to move without compensation by the military under Myanmar’s former junta in 1996.
The following year, the land was granted to the Great Wall Agricultural Co. as part of a 30-year lease, and residents said they were forced to pay two tons of sugarcane per acre to lease it back.
In 2013, the villagers complained to the government about the situation and stopped paying rent, claiming an exemption under the 2012 Land Law Amendment.
Villagers told RFA that soldiers are now encamped on the site of the former Great Wall plantation, east of Nyaung Wun village, and telling residents to evacuate their homes daily. They said the land claimed by the military comprises 2,091 acres in Ngwe Daung and Nyaung Wun and about 564 acres in Ye Htut.
The soldiers claim that 72 of the 240 houses in Ngwe Daung had encroached on military land, as well as 60 of the 1,000 houses in Nyaung Wun and all 60 houses in Ye Htut. In total, more than 500 people are being evicted.
A Ngwe Daung villager, who declined to be named, said many evicted villagers are now sheltering near the local monastery because they have nowhere else to go.
“At first, they gave us seven days to move out, but now they have become impatient and demand we do so in three days. We must move because they come every day threatening us,” he said.
The villager said that life had already been difficult in recent months because of the country’s political crisis following the military coup and an ongoing coronavirus outbreak that has seen 17,631 people die from COVID-19, with more than 461,000 people since the start of the pandemic.
Being forced to relocate is putting an even greater strain on the local population, he said, particularly due to increases in the costs of demolition and construction during the ongoing rainy season.
“How can we rebuild our houses when we are all struggling to make ends meet?” asked the villager.
Acting with impunity
Thein Aung Myint, a former political prisoner working on land issues in Mandalay region, told RFA that the military has been trying to confiscate the land since 2017, when it filed a claim under the Fallow and Vacant Land Act without informing residents. When the villagers refused to leave, a military officer filed charges against 161 people for violating the act in a court case that began in 2019.
Under the NLD, Myanmar’s civilian government adopted 10 policies on confiscated land, including three specifically pertaining to military land grabs. Among them was a law preventing the leasing of land allotted for military construction to farmers to grow crops and another requiring that land which is not being used for military training or construction be returned to the original residents.
On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military overthrew of the country’s democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government by claiming the party had stolen the country’s November 2020 ballot through voter fraud. The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed anti-coup protests, killing at least 1,146 people and arresting 6,914 others, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Since then, Thein Aung Myint said, the military has given up trying to advance its claims on the land in Sintgu township in court and began harassing residents instead, knowing that it no longer will have to answer for its actions.
But he said that regardless of what government is in power, using force to evict farmers is not a long-term solution to the country’s land problems.
“We have to question whether it is ethical to do this kind of thing instead of helping them earn a living,” he said.
“These issues should be resolved through the people’s elected representatives. Only by promulgating laws and implementing them accordingly can the solutions be considered correct. But now, with the coup, the authorities are ruling with guns and what they are doing is bullying people.”
Thein Aung Myint said authorities have also been using force, rather than the courts, to end land disputes with the military in several other states and regions since February.
Attempts by RFA to contact junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun by telephone went unanswered Wednesday.
Prior to the coup, New York-based Human Rights Watch had called on Myanmar’s government to settle decades-old claims by farmers evicted by the military and put laws in place to prevent future land grabs, saying that those deprived of their land have been refused adequate compensation, cut off from the only work they know, and denied access to basic services such as health care, schooling, and education.
Government figures confirm that hundreds of thousands of acres of land have been taken over the last 30 years, though activists believe the true number of acres seized may be in the millions, the rights group said, adding that “confiscations often occurred with little or no compensation,” creating a “profoundly harmful” impact on those forced from their land.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.