Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) has illegally detained some farmers in Irrawaddy Region who could not repay agricultural loans and released them only after they paid off the loan, according to the farmers.
Local authorities and UMEHL officials detained dozens of farmers from Inndu, Gonetan, Hmawbizu, Hmawai, Noutpyandoe and Kada villages in Dedaye Township and some villages in Kyaiklat Township in Pyapon District in Irrawaddy Region, sources said.
The farmers were forcibly held in a warehouse at the Noutpyandoe 100-ton rice mill owned by the UMEHL, according to some farmers who were released after they repaid the debt.
During last year’s rainy season, the UMEHL granted farmers agricultural loans at a two percent interest rate, but some farmers could not repay the loan, sources said.
On August 1, the UMEHL summoned the farmers who owed money, saying that village heads would hold a meeting in the warehouse of the Noutpyandoe rice mill. When the farmers arrived at the warehouse, the doors were locked and UMEHL officials said that only farmers who could repay the loan would be released.
A farmer from Noutpyandoe village who owns more than 20 acres said he received a 2 million kyat (about US$ 2,499) loan at 2 percent interest rate and he was detained because he could not pay off the loan. His family had to pawn his farm to raise the money to pay off the loan, he said.
Initially, about 100 farmers were detained. As of Tuesday, about 30 male farmers and six female farmers had not been released, said a farmer from Inndu, who was released. Most of the farmers who were released had to pawn or sell buffaloes, cows or farms to repay the loan, he said.
“Some families had to sell their property urgently to ransom the farmers,” the farmer said.
UMEHL staff guarded the warehouse and the families of the detainees had to send in food, said farmers who were released.
A Pegu-based lawyer, Aye Myint, who is a farmer-rights activist, said that UMEHL did not have the right to detain the farmers and holding them hostage was against the law. If someone is held for more than three days, a person could be charged under section 343 of the penal code, he said.
“They’ve misused their positions and influence and arrested the farmers. The farmers were afraid and they’ve suffered. That is illegal detention,” Aye Myint told Mizzima. He said if they want farmers to repay the loans, the company could file a civil suit.
A resident of Inndu village said that village heads had summoned some farmers who had not repaid their loans but who were not detained and told them if they did not repay the loans in time, the UMEHL staff and the police would arrest them.
She said many farmers could not repay the loans because their crops were spoiled by bad weather.
“According to the bonds, we must pay rice [in the husk] grown in summer. But, the colour of the rice turned yellow because of the rain. So, it was not accepted. Similarly, because of the rain we lost the rice grown in winter. So we could not pay off the loans,” she told Mizzima.
She said that her husband tried to borrow money to pay off the UMEHL loan, but the interest rates were very high.