Freedom and Threats in Changing Myanmar

“If you ask me if things have changed, I’ll say ‘yes’. If you ask me if things haven’t changed, I’ll say ‘yes’,” smiles 43 year-old Phoe Sein, a community paralegal working in the dry and dusty central plains region of Bago in Burma. He is a young-looking man, with the exception of his teeth, which are stained red from a decades-long betel nut habit.

In 1996, Phoe Sein lost five of his family’s ten acres when a military officer marched into his field with a pistol and informed him that he was “trespassing on government land”. At the time, under the military rule of dictator Than Shwe, says Phoe Sein, “Everyone was afraid. People couldn’t even ask a question. So government took land very easily.”

Phoe Sein’s land – five acres on the west side of Shan Su Village was part of a 5,291acre swath that the military seized, leasing the land to Burmese sugarcane companies. When Phoe Sein protested that the land belonged to him, the officer, a Major called Lwin, raised his pistol. Naing looked at him and said, “If you shoot, I will die in this place and I will be remembered [by other farmers] as a hero. If you die here, you will be lost in the land.” Then he gathered his tools and walked back home.

In 1997, Phoe Sein started asking for his land back, and to be compensated for his lost crop. He says he was afraid. The dangers of dissent were well known. But he submitted a letter anyway. He never got a response.

The company came in with machines and cleared the land. Some local farmers became day laborers on the sugarcane farms. As years went by, the farmers fell into debt because of their shrunken farms. Children in the village had to drop out of school after year five, because the cost of transportation to the nearby year six school was out of reach.

“During the time of the military government, you couldn’t gather more than three or four people to move around. There was fear everywhere. People were afraid to speak up,” says Thar Hla, 53, village administrator for Yangone Village, one of the communities affected by the 5,291-acre land grab.

It is a story that has been repeated across Burma. The military seizes land and signs deals with Burmese and foreign companies, leaving farmers impoverished or landless. With elections and a change of government in 2011, at least one part of the story has changed. People are now able to speak up.

In 2013, Phoe Sein joined a grassroots organization called the Civil and Political Rights Campaign Group (CPRCG). CPRCG was founded by a couple of activists in their late twenties. It employs lawyers, activists, and now, in partnership with Namati, the international legal empowerment organization 30 paralegals across six of Burma’s 14 states and divisions.

Land in Burma is complex and important – over 65 percent of the country’s labor force works in agriculture. Recent government reforms have opened the door to protest and the claiming of redress, but not all of the trouble dates from military land grabs.

In Lad Panpin Village, in Bago, I talked to Nyo Gyi, a 43 year-old farmer whose main crops are beans and rice. In 2012 he learned that he was no longer eligible for the annual six-month loan from the Government Agricultural Bank that he and his family had depended on for as long as they could remember.

He was denied the loan because the government’s records classified his farm as state forest. Looking at the land, it is hard to understand how it could be classified as forest. The acres surrounding the village stretch out under the bleaching sun, dry and flat – barely a tree in sight. “We’ve been farming there for many years,” Nyo Gyi says. “Even in the ‘forest area’ there are no trees.”

Without government loans, farmers are left to find the money they need for pre-cultivation elsewhere, most often through brokers or wealthier individuals in the village. Interest rates can reach upwards of 15 percent, a cost that can ruin a farmer in a bad season.

Last year, 2013, Nyo Gyi’s yield was worse than expected because of drought, so he couldn’t pay his loan back in full. “I needed to save some for my family”, he says. “And to pay for seeds for the next planting season.” Without being able to pay, and with high interest rates, Nyo Gyi is at risk of entering a crippling cycle of debt. Many farmers are experiencing the same problem.

As the country continues to open and new investment encourages certain high yield crop strains and more expensive farming inputs, the farmer debt issue could explode, says Laura Goodwin, Program Director for the international legal empowerment organization, Namati. “What we are seeing now is only the beginning.”

The classification issue reveals how tenuous the farmers’ claims to their own land really are in Burma. Nyo Gyi was under the impression that he controlled the land he farmed. It was only when the land was designated a state forest that he realized this wasn’t true. The episode forced Nyo Gyi to learn about land laws and to explore the options to change the land back to farmland – so he has a chance of obtaining a formal land use certificate.

A new registration process, announced in 2012, has quickly revealed the tangled web of confusion around ownership, control, classification, and use. The process lends itself to abuse. In one village, I talked to 26 year-old Thar Hla whose aunt, when she learned about the registration process, tried to register her nephew’s land under her name. The work required to prove a land claim takes a long time, and knowledge of a system that is flooded with demands.

Without a land use certificate, a farmer has no formal tenure and no ability to protect his land or his family’s livelihood, regardless of how long it has been understood to be theirs. After decades when there were no mechanisms for registration, the gates have now been opened, and farmers are clamoring for their place in line.

Meanwhile, Burma’s opening up means companies are pouring in. The tourism industry is growing. Near Inle Lake, ‘a must-see’ place for intrepid visitors, according to the 2011 Lonely Planet Guide, we passed happy tourists riding bicycles down a lazy road amidst new construction and bungalows enveloped in greenery. Across the street from a new flower-laden boutique hotel is Milethong village, a community that is seriously struggling.

Many of the farmers in Milethong lost access to their land for two reasons. On one side of the road, land is classified as forest, meaning that farmers can’t register their farming rights. On the other side of the road, many of the same farmers lost land because it has been seized by the government and leased to developers to build hotels. Many say the hotel being built across from Milethong Village is owned by the daughter of former military leader Than Shwe. Many Junta cronies own tourism businesses in the area.

“Problems have been there for a long time – but now because of the change of government, farmers can do something. That’s why we hear their voice,” says Nay Tun, Founder of CPRCG. Since the passage of the Farmland Law in 2012, over 300,000 acres across the country have been restored to farmers. Many with the assistance of paralegals – or grassroots advocates – trained by Namati and CPRCG.

Paralegals, or grassroots advocates, are now being trained in the basics of the law and issues related to land in Burma. Their role is to walk communities through the process of securing land tenure – through registration, dispute resolution, or the return of grabbed land – and following up on cases that get stuck in the system. They are boots on the ground, gathering information village to village and making themselves available to empower farmers through raising awareness, answering questions on the law, and working together to resolve land cases. They also help establish a bridge between the cases on the ground and dealings with higher-level authorities, from writing complaint letters to regional administrators and ministries, to driving policy-level advocacy. The partnership between Namati and CPRCG has created the largest community paralegal network in Myanmar to date.

Much of what the paralegals do is simply try to get people secure land tenure before it is too late. The land use certificate many farmers are now seeking is only the first step. Ultimately, the paralegals want to ensure that farmers can claim and use their land now and into the future so that they don’t live in constant fear of losing their livelihood.

CPRCG founder Nay Tun, a poised 29-year-old with sharp features and betel-red lips, explains that activists want to see change. But he says they must accept that the current government is leading and shaping that change. “Government is not making clear-cut decisions. Decisions are opaque. But we can’t work faster than the process of political reforms.”

CPRCG itself formed because of the change of government. “Before,” Nay Tun says, “people didn’t name themselves.” Until the 2011 elections, CPRCG functioned as a loose network of activists. Now, many of them are receiving training in the law and Nay Tun says it’s making them stronger: “Opportunities have now opened up for promotion and protection of civil, political and human rights. The door is open but there’s a lot left”, he says.

With tensions brewing, CPRCG is focusing on the law, he says, “to empower peaceful protest.” “Farmer issues cannot be resolved before political reforms happen,” he says as he draws a road with his finger on the grass mat he is sitting on. On one side of the road are farmers; on the other, political reforms. Nay Tun says CPRCG is working to ensure that at least the two roads progress at the same pace.

“In the past, farmers haven’t had anyone to advocate for them,” says Nay Tun. And now that they do, he says, “Patience is worth it.”

July 22, 2014 | Namati Author