Officials in Karen State, eastern Burma, have been charging villagers with criminal trespass if they refuse to leave confiscated land, Human Rights Watch says.

“Well-connected business owners, militia leaders, and government officials are exploiting land laws and regulatory weakness to obtain land with little regard for the rights of the farmers who have been long using it,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The New York-based organization has released a 65-page report “‘The Farmer Becomes the Criminal’: Land Confiscation in Burma’s Karen State,” and calls on the National League for Democracy(NLD)-led government to “stop the arbitrary arrest of land activists by police, and release activists awaiting trial for undertaking peaceful activities to protest land seizures.”

Robertson adds that governments engaged with Myanmar should not be fooled by “the veneer” of land reforms, which have been initiated since 2012 and updated this year.

During decades of military rule, Myanmar, or Burma, as it was called before the junta changed the country's name in 1989, was considered a pariah state and largely closed to foreigners.

The NLD, led by Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung Sun Suu Kyi, took power in Myanmar earlier this year.

Suu Kyi has since been criticized by some in the international human rights community for being slow to act on certain issues, most notably the plight of ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar. However, others have suggested Suu Kyi and the new government should be given more time to implement changes and that people need to understand the broader context of the country’s plethora of development challenges.

According to the World Bank, Myanmar has the lowest life expectancy and the second-highest rate of infant and child mortality among ASEAN countries. The country still faces major basic infrastructure issues, with savage road shortages and two-thirds of the population lacking access to the electricity grid. Despite boasting considerable natural resources, a low population density, and attracting a flood of international financial support, economic growth has been curtailed in recent years by a supply shock from heavy flooding and low international commodity prices.

Editor: Olivia Yang