YANGON (Reuters) - Before entering the courthouse in the capital of eastern Myanmar’s Shan State, Maw Maw Oo said it was ominous that several blue police vans were already waiting in the parking lot.
“But I don’t want to guess what the court’s decision will be,” she told a Reuters reporter by phone.
Hours later she was jailed for a month for trespassing on what she had insisted was her own land, in a case that starkly illuminates the challenge facing Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) took power almost nine months ago pledging to solve the country’s land disputes.
Maw Maw Oo, 45, is a leader among the farmers from Ye Bu village, where Myanmar’s powerful military had sued 96 residents for trespassing after they continued to work land they say was taken from them by the army.
The court in Taunggyi on Thursday sentenced 72 farmers to a month in prison each and fined others, making a quick solution unlikely in the dispute over the farmland, on much of which the army has sought to establish agri-businesses with private firms.
Maw Maw Oo was among those convicted and taken straight to jail in one of the vans, lawyers said, so could not be reached for comment on the verdict.
Ye Bu farmer Myo Aung said residents were considering their next steps, but vowed to fight on despite the convictions.
“We will keep trying under the law to find justice,” he said. “We complained to the government, and also the commander-in-chief, but nothing has improved.”
In some families, both parents were now behind bars, said Myo Aung, who was not convicted on Thursday but faces charges in a separate trespassing case involving a private company.
Across Myanmar there are thousands of disputes involving alleged land seizures under the junta that ruled for decades.
Many date from a military-led transition from socialism to a market-driven economy beginning in the 1990s and involve the army itself. The Ministry of Defence controls some 2 million acres, or about 5 percent of Myanmar’s arable land, but has pledged to return any land it does not need.
Major Aung Htwe of the army’s Eastern Command, who filed lawsuits against the farmers in Ye Bu, told Reuters the court’s decision was correct and would act as a deterrent against farmers entering or working land they did not have rights to.
“If they do something like that again, they will be punished by the law,” he said on Friday.
Tim Millar, country director at Namati, a legal advocacy working on land disputes across Myanmar, said filing charges of trespass against farmers was a frequent tactic, although not usually on the same scale as in Ye Bu.
“It is a tool used to dissuade farmers from seeking justice,” he told Reuters by email. “It plays on both the fear of the farmers and imposes costs on them”, as they are required to travel repeatedly to court, Millar added.
David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch, said the NLD would struggle with the scale of the land problem.
“But it could be prioritising legal reform that ensures land laws protect farmers,” he said by email.
Nyan Win, a national-level spokesman for the NLD, said while he disagreed with the army suing farmers, the party could not interfere in the judicial process.
Suu Kyi has established a parliamentary committee on confiscated land, but activists say it has yet to take significant action.
Kyaw Myint, an NLD lawmaker who sits on a separate committee handling farmers’ affairs, said that despite being the ruling party, the NLD’s individual lawmakers were “too weak” to confront the military over land.
“The military should give up and return the lands they don’t need for the military projects. They have no rights to do business in those areas,” he said. “But finding a solution will be very long process.”
Editing by Alex Richardson