Farmers Want National Association to Protect Interests

By May Lay 18 September 2012

RANGOON—Farmers from rural areas around Burma are trying to set up the Myanmar Farmers Association (MFA) by cooperating with central executive committee members of the Myanmar Rice Federation (MRF) although government permission has not yet been granted.

“Executive-level people of the government worry about the Myanmar Farmers Association as more than 75 percent of the country’s population works in agriculture. Currently there are many protests regarding land grabs. If they can’t control this massive group, it will impact on the government body and current situation,” said a spokesperson for the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The MRF, the formerly Myanmar Rice Industry Association, has grown very quickly into a powerful organization since reformist President Thein Sein took office in March last year. At first, the MRF only gave recommendations for rice exports to support the work of the Ministry of Commerce. Later, the association also got permission to operate the “buffer stock” project. The MRF is just over one year old and led by famous tycoon Chit Khine.

Yet some analysts do not see the trade association as necessarily a positive development.

“Now the MRF has already set up the Myanmar Agribusiness Public Corporation (MAPCO), which is the first public company allowed by the government. MAPCO is currently selling shares to the public while another 17 private companies are waiting for permission from the government,” an economic expert told The Irrawaddy.

“MRF already handles rice exports and the local production sector. It also operates the buffer stock project. Now the MRF is trying to set up the MFA for other farming such as pulses, beans and sesame farmers. It is not good for market competition and will lead to domination.”

The MFA asked for government permission to establish an association in the first week of September yet has already announced that it will operate in the future as an arm of the MRF despite the absence of an official response.

“We will try to set up a National Farmers Conference during the next six months. We will invite President Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other related ministers. In that conference, farmers will speak out about their feelings and their rights. We will also elect the chairman and other committee members for the MFA,” said Soe Tun, the temporary chairman of the MFA as well as a central executive member of the MRF.

MRF central executive members are currently heading the MFA before the National Farmers Conference takes place and new leaders can be chosen. MRF members said they will network with farmers to ascertain their needs and promote their capacities.

“We can use our voice with this association. We will propose our ideas for the development of the agricultural sector and rural areas at the conference. We believe we are the only ones who can promote our lives,” said Than Tun, a farmer who owns more than 120 acres in Irrawaddy Division.

Currently farmers are suffering from floods in the main rice cultivation areas of the Irrawaddy Delta as well as drought farther north in the dry zone where bean and pulse crops are under threat.

Many farmers are struggling this year due to the lack of financial assistance from the government—50,000 kyat (US $60) per acre as opposed to the 150,000 kyat ($180) needed to be sustainable.

The current farming system run by MRF involves special rice companies supporting farmers on a contract basis. But only around 10 special companies can continue to support farmers this year compared with 58 in 2011 as around half of farmers have apparently not been able to repay last year’s loans.

“We will argue at Parliament for a law to protect farmers after our association becomes official,” said Soe Tun. “But currently we will continue trying to get permission from the government for the registration of the Myanmar Farmers Association.”