Freedoms & Threats: Myanmar’s tangled land rights

Phoe Sein is a land rights advocate working in the dry and dusty central plains region of Bago in Myanmar. Aged 43, 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. 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 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.

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 school was out of reach.

It is a story that has been repeated cross in Myanmar. 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, there has been hope for change in Myanmar and the government recently released a draft national land use policy, which will be finalized at the start of 2015. However there are fears it will fail to address historic land grabbing by the country’s ruling elite, threatens to dispossess women and will leave thousands of farmers with insecure rights to their land.

Land in Myanmar is complex and important – over 65 per cent of the country 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 forced to pay high interest rates to buy seeds. In 2013, Nyo Gyi’s yield was worse than expected because of drought, so he couldn’t pay his loan in full. 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.

The classification issue reveals how tenuous the farmers’ claims to their own land really are in Myanamr. 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.

A new registration process, announced in 2012, has 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.

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.

Meanwhile Myanmar’s opening up means the tourism industry is growing. Near Inle Lake, 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 because it has been seized by government and leased to developers to build hotels. Many Junta cronies own tourism businesses in the area.

“Problems have been there for a long time – but now because of the changes, farmers can do something. That’s why we hear their voice,” says Nay Tun, founder of 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 like Phoe Sein across six of Myanmar’s 14 states and divisions.

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 trained by Namati and CPRCG.

But a great many past land grabs remain unsolved. “With the prevalence of past land injustices, some of which are decades-old cases, the new land policy shouldn’t just regulate future land use,” says Laura Goodwin, Namati’s program director in Myanmar. She is also concerned that because current land regulations only allow one name on a land use certificate women face the threat of dispossession. “We’ve seen that 83 per cent of registrations are in a man’s name, despite the fact that many women hold documents like tax records showing the land they maintained in the past,” says Goodwin. “There also needs to be recognition of community land rights – shared commons areas that millions rely on for livestock grazing, firewood, and other resources.”

By collecting information on the thousands of land cases handled, Namati and CPRCG have more data on the land registration process than the government itself. It is using that information to advocate changes that will make the process more equitable for women and responsive to the outstanding land grabbing cases from the past.

“The Burmese government created five drafts of the National Land Use Policy this year before making a draft public,” says Goodwin. “Without a longer period for public consultation Myanmar’s land laws are in danger of making permanent the injustices of the past and creating new ones for the future.”

In order to protect their identities, the names of some farmers were changed in this article.

February 2, 2015 | Bremen Donovan