Kanbalu Township, Myanmar – Since the conviction of her husband two months ago, Gam stays close to her modest wooden house in Myay Mun village, paralysed by fear and worried about her future.
Looking out at the lush green fields of northwestern Myanmar, she pointed to the tin-roofed houses set up by the Myanmar army to guard farmland that she and her husband used to call their own.
“Now, all my land has been taken by the army and my husband has gone to jail,” Gam said, in tears.
Her husband is one of 56 farmers who were arrested in July and August under the charges of trespassing and criminal misconduct, with prison terms ranging from three months to three years. Their crime was participating in a “plough protest”, a form of demonstration whereby farmers plough disputed land to symbolise their ownership of it.
We are not allowed to move freely within our own land.
In recent years, Myanmar has been touted internationally as an example of democratic reform – US President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit on Wednesday evening for the ASEAN Summit is a sign of just how much goodwill the regime’s makeover has generated. Yet, people who had land confiscated during military rule still face obstacles in their attempts to get it back.
A growing problem
Since 2012, thousands of farmers have taken to the fields to peaceably fight for the return of their farmland – a phenomenon that government officials and human rights activists said will continue if the administration of President Thein Sein does not properly address it.
In Kanbalu Township court, almost 200 farmers from five villages are facing trial for the plough protest. Gam said the army’s presence in Kanbalu has also increased, with armed soldiers stationed on various plots of land to prevent farmers from passing through or cultivating it.
“We are not allowed to move freely within our own land,” she said.
Than Sein, the administrative secretary of Kanbalu Township, declined to speak with reporters about the protest or evictions. “I don’t want to talk to the foreign press,” he said.
Reporters were also turned away when they approached a military camp set up in Kanbalu.
During the five decades of military rule, the army seized land for state-run agricultural and industrial projects, or leased it to private companies with links to the military, forcibly evicting thousands of families.
‘The government ignores it’
To address the growing number of complaints submitted by disenfranchised farmers, the new nominally civilian government set up a Land Investigation Commission in 2012. The commission’s first report found that the military had seized about 100,000 hectares of farmland in the whole country – a number considered to be a gross underestimate, even by some members of the investigating body.
Khine Maung Yi, a member of the commission in the capital, Yangon, said it has received more than 28,000 complaints since it was established. In Sagaing Division alone – where Kanbalu Township is located – he estimated that more than 80,000 hectares of land were illegally seized. However, exact numbers for the whole country remain unclear due to several ongoing conflicts involving the country’s ethnic minorities.
“The whole of Burma has this problem,” he told Al Jazeera. (In 1989, Burma was renamed Myanmar by the country’s military government.) “In the whole country, our commission estimates the total acres taken to be 3 to 4 million acres [1.21 million to 1.62 million hectares].”
It is a bad image for a democratic government to have. The government ignores it…. Any case that is a military case, the government cannot resolve it.
Khine Maung Yi – who also serves as a parliamentarian representing the National Democracy Front party – said the issue is not being adequately addressed by the government as the ruling party maintains close ties to the military.
“It is a bad image for a democratic government to have,” he said. “The government ignores it… Any case that is a military case, the government cannot resolve it.”
Kevin Woods, a research analyst with Transnational Institute – a think tank that conducts research on Myanmar’s land and resource issues – said these peaceful protests are “a symbolically potent” way to demonstrate the farmers’ ownership. The authorities’ response, he said, is troubling.
“This occupying strategy – and police response to forceful evictions and arrest – brings to light how new laws enacted in the country have in many ways been carefully formulated in such a way as to give more legal power to the government and more legal rights to companies over its citizens and their right to livelihood and land,” Woods said by email.
He added that the lack of legal rights afforded to protesting villagers offers a “bleak view” into how President Thein Sein’s government is using the law to accomplish “top-down coercive development goals”.
More to the point, Myint Myint Aye – an activist who has been imprisoned for protesting against land confiscation – said: “This is very dangerous for the future.”
Threats and intimidation
For Saw, a farmer and resident of Kanbalu Township’s Kha Ohn Tar village, the effects of losing her 20 acres (8.1 hectares) of land was immediate. After it was confiscated, her two daughters were sent to Mandalay city to work as waitresses after she could no longer afford their schooling.
“I am afraid because some of my relatives have been sent to jail [since the plough protest] and the army is everywhere,” Saw said. “It is not safe to go from one place to another.”
With farmers making up roughly 70 percent of Myanmar’s population, land rights is a major problem for the government, said Thein Than Oo, a prominent lawyer representing the Kanbalu farmers.
“President Thein Sein tries to pretend to the world, to the international community, that they are changing. But actually, they are not changing,” he said. “[The government] never solves the issue easily or according to the law. They always use force.”
The farmers should have the sense to negotiate. If they possess 5 acres of land, then they should be content if they could get 2.5 or 3 acres back.
‘Sense to negotiate’
Hla Swe, a retired lieutenant colonel who is now a parliamentarian in neighbouring Magwe region, believes that the farmers should be compromising to find a solution, instead of staging protests.
“The farmers should have the sense to negotiate. If they possess 5 acres [2 hectares] of land, then they should be content if they could get 2.5 or 3 acres [1 to 1.2 hectares] back,” Hla Swe said.
However, Than Htike, a resident of Kha Ohn Tar village, says that negotiation over his family’s land is out of the question.
“The military took our land illegally [in 1999] and they threw out the farmers like we were dogs,” he said. “Some farmers tried to fight back but they were thrown into jail, so everyone stopped fighting.”
Once hopeful for democratic change, Than Htike has grown disenchanted with the new government’s promises of reform. His 65-year-old father is currently in prison for participating in the plough protest.
“When the military took our land in 1999, some farmers went to jail for no reason at all,” he said. “The country may be a democracy, but it is no different from a military government.”