Some 400 villagers from the Kantbaly township in northern Burma are facing jail terms for conducting a “plough protest“ and reoccupying sugar plantation lands they say was forcibly taken from them by the military-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) back in 1997.
The past two weeks already saw the township court sentence about 90 farmers to prison terms ranging from three months to three years on charges of trespassing and causing damage to land that is now being used as a sugar cane plantation.
While unprecedented in the severity and scope of the authorities‘ response, the case is a painful representation of the land-grabbing crisis that has been gripping the country for years.
Under the former military regime, Burmese farmers saw hundreds of thousands of hectares of their land forcibly and often violently taken away from them.
Rights watchdogs including the Asian Human Rights Commission have pointed out that the reforms introduced by Burma's president, U Thei Sein, to return the land to its original owners have suffered from lax implementation, leaving far too many people dispossessed.
And this time too it is no different.
The Kanbalu villagers have filed numerous complaints over the alleged land grab with the authorities in the past. These led the Ministry of Defence to order MEC to hand back most of the land in March 2013.
But MEC reportedly refused to follow the orders and vacate the sugar plantation.
“During that time, we reached an agreement that they [the company] will give up the land once they’ve completed the harvest. Now everything has been harvested but they broke the agreement. That’s why we plough on our lands in protest,” Tin Tun, a farmer from Kha Ohn Tha village, told the Thai Irrawaddy newspaper last week.
At the same time, Ma Khaing, another farmer, said the authorities and the court appeared to be colluding with the company in order to silence the villagers’ calls for the return of their land.
“How can we trust the government since they neglect us and treat us unfairly? We have no one we can trust. We are disappointed with the judicial system and will never forgive how the authorities have treated us.”
Apart from raising concerns about the commitment of the authorities and courts to solve land disputes, perhaps most importantly the case shows how unresponsive MEC is to legitimate grievances—a warning sign for any ethical food and beverage company thinking about doing business with this notoriously secretive conglomerate, according to commentators.
Just how uninterested the company is in being contacted or providing any kind of information about its operations can be gathered from the fact that it does not even have a website.
Yet, as pointed out by experts, the problem with one of Burma's biggest corporations and with the secrecy surrounding its dealings goes far beyond Internet absence.
In a recent report examining the transparency and responsible business practices by the top domestic corporations, MEC not only scored zero but also was the only enterprise that refused to engage with the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, the think tank conducting the survey.
“The military-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation, which is a dominant player in Burma's sugar industry, was the only company we contacted in our survey which refused to receive our letter at the gate,“ Vicky Bowman, the centre’s director told FoodNavigator-Asia.
Such behaviour, she said, indicates “how responsive a company like that will be to community concerns“ and should raise red flags to “an investor looking to [MEC] as a business partner or supplier“.
If that wasn’t enough, any company considering doing business with MEC needs to remember that it will most likely have to enter into a joint-venture with one of the very few Burmese companies that are still subject to US sanctions.
And this combination not only poses risks of complicity in human rights abuses, but as demonstrated by recent lawsuits against multinationals dealing with questionable suppliers, also opens sugar companies to legal action.
- Each week, the Insight column investigates cases of alleged poor practices by Asia-Pacific companies involved in food production and processing.