SHWE YAUNG PYA, Mon State — Some four hours’ drive from Rangoon off the main road to Moulmein in Mon State, the Shwe Yaung Pya Agro rubber plantation is well on its way to full commercial operations.
Orderly rows of young, deep-green rubber trees stretch for miles across Bilin and Thaton townships, the most mature plants yielding milky white sap for the rubber industry long seen by previous governments as a potential driver of national economic growth.
It is a tranquil view, revealing little of the plantation’s origins some 11 years ago in a former conflict zone, or the smoldering discontent that recently came to light among residents in the area.
About 20 former farm owners challenged the basis on which their lands moved into the hands of plantation owner Max Myanmar, during a recent visit to the vicinity by The Irrawaddy.
They had no choice but to relinquish their holdings in territory that had been earmarked by the then military government for the commercial rubber venture, these residents said.
They had accepted compensation payments only under pressure, they insisted, and had suffered ever since.
“To this day, I feel that since losing my land, my life has been tough. I no longer feel mentally strong; it’s as if I have lost a hand, or a leg,” said septuagenarian former farm owner Maung Win in a complaint over land loss echoed in thousands of other legacy cases sitting on the desk of Burma’s new National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which has vowed to make resolving land issues a priority.
At the Max Myanmar headquarters in Rangoon, chief operating officer Dr. Thaung Han did not accept the allegations.
The fact that the company had only planted on a part of the 5,000-acre area allocated showed that it had not taken land that owners did not want to sell, he said. Compensation payments had been fair, he added.
The plantation’s Managing Director Maung Maung Htet, who has worked at the site since its early years, took a similar view: ‘‘It is not possible that people who accepted compensation did not want to sell,’’ he claimed.
Making a Plantation
Max Myanmar is no stranger to the hot-button issue of land ownership. Of Burma’s “crony” conglomerates, it has been among the most active in recent years in engaging with controversies around lands acquired during the period of military rule that ended in 2011.
It has been extensively involved with local and international initiatives promoting ethical land policies, and adopted an anti-land grabbing policy itself.
It was praised for returning land outright to farmers near Chaung Tha village and Ngwe Saung sub-district in Irrawaddy Division, and it negotiated several improved compensation deals with farmers and others in various other locations.
But in a new era under a new government, it and other private companies face fresh scrutiny over land acquisitions that took place in another time.
Bilin Township today has a bucolic air, with local people including ethnic Karen, Mon and Burmans engaged mainly in small-scale farming, fishing and running family businesses like shops. There is little development, and migration to Thailand for jobs is still common. Modest tourism has been tested in the area, which is only about an hour and a half’s drive from the famous “Golden Rock” pilgrimage site known as Kyaiktiyo.
In 2005, however, Bilin and neighboring Thaton townships were on the outer reaches of a bitter conflict zone. Villagers suffered the brunt as the Burma Army launched a major offensive against the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) throughout much of the southeast.
Forced labor, forced portering, extortion and other human rights abuses around that time by the Burma Army, and to a lesser extent by the Karen armed group, pushed some 3,000 people from Bilin and Thaton into refugee camps in Thailand, where they were reported to still be living in 2013.
In that context and with the country under military rule, human rights groups say, it was unthinkable for locals to speak out when 5,000 acres of their land was earmarked by the former junta, first for a sugar plantation that soon failed, and then later for commercial rubber.
In May 2005, Max Myanmar chief Zaw Zaw, then just 38 and engaged in helping to construct the then new capital Naypyidaw as well as a range of other business ventures, turned up in the area with Lt-Gen Maung Bo, at the time commander of the Burma Army’s Southern Command and chief of the Bureau of Special Operations–4, who died in 2009.
The men had arrived to inaugurate the plantation that Max Myanmar would operate under the government’s plan to turn huge swaths of the south over to private commercial agriculture, growing mainly palm oil and rubber. By 2013, an estimated 5.2 million acres of land had been similarly earmarked or appropriated for commercial agriculture throughout the country.
‘‘U Zaw Zaw, chairman of the company [Max Myanmar] briefed Lt-Gen Maung Bo and party on cultivation of rubber. Lt-Gen Maung Bo urged officials concerned to extend cultivation of rubber in the interests of the State, the region and in their own [sic],’’ reported the state-owned New Light of Myanmar newspaper on May 9, 2005.
Max Myanmar had no prior experience in the rubber business at the time, and an assessment of the plantation operation carried out at the firm’s behest in 2013 suggested that the idea to do so wasn’t necessarily its own.
‘‘While still unclear, it appears that starting and successfully running the rubber plantation was a requirement for Max Myanmar to receive other more profitable lands or opportunities, such as hotel concessions,’’ stated the report produced for the company by the international law firm BSR.
Little is known still about the exact nature of the deals made by some of the country’s largest firms with close links to the military during a period that saw vast parcels of land, much of it in ethnic areas, turned over to private interests.
Farmers from Kachin State recently visited Rangoon to protest over the granting of huge concessions to the Yuzana Company, owned by Htay Myint, which left them dispossessed.
By 2013, the area of land handed over was equivalent to the size of the nation of Israel, based on information in government statistics.
Max Myanmar insists that it made efforts to ensure fair compensation for landowners from the beginning of the rubber operation, and to engage with all key local stakeholders, including local KNU and NLD representatives in the then tense conflict zone.
Some of the land had been abandoned for years due to the armed conflict between the KNU and the Burma Army, according to Maung Maung Htet, the plantation’s managing director. Parts of the territory were scrubland, hilly or pocked with holes.
“We paid low for virgin land and higher for cultivated areas. We paid for places where we couldn’t plant anything. We even paid for a graveyard,’’ he said.
“We wanted to settle everything peacefully,” he added.
In some cases, KNU officials helped negotiate prices per acre downward by as much as half, Maung Maung Htet said, suggesting that this was related to the company’s pledge to build a school, roads and health clinics for the impoverished local community.
It has since carried out a range of such projects in local villages, though Aung Moe Tun, head of Shwe Yaung Pya village tract, said that some locals were disappointed that the level of assistance has not matched promises made.
Group chief operating officer Thaung Han was adamant that the fact that the company had not planted rubber on the whole allocated 5,000 acres was an indication of its good intentions. “We didn’t take land that holders didn’t want to sell. That’s why we have only used over 3,000 acres,’’ he said.
A company website provides some information on the process of compensation paid out yearly as the Shwe Yaung Pya plantation expanded.
In the first year, 2005-06, the plantation paid out 182,900,000 kyats (about US$205,000 at the then exchange rate) for 914.5 acres, or around $225 per acre.
More payments followed in subsequent years and by the end of 2013, according to the information, a total of 698,400,000 kyats (roughly $600,000, using current exchange rates) was paid out. The number of individuals who received payments is not provided.
Max Myanmar may have expected final closure on the matter of compensation after 2013, when it made additional payments to an unspecified number of farmers who thought they were “not properly compensated to the fullest,’’ according to the website. Some land had also been returned to farmers who “wanted to work and retain their ownership rights.’’
Yet in the village of Zee Won, the residents who gathered to meet this reporter insisted that they remained deeply unhappy about the entire basis upon which they settled with the company.
People were afraid to speak their minds under military rule and the previous government, said Way Lay, a representative of the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), who was present at the meeting.
In a survey conducted by the group three years ago of 94 household representatives from close-by Zee Won and Shwe Yaung Pya villages who had accepted land compensation, just eight were recorded as saying they ‘‘agreed’’ with the deal they had made. Former farm owners from other nearby villages were not surveyed.
Villager Aye Kyi told The Irrawaddy in Zee Won that she felt she had no choice but to accept a 2,850,000 kyats (around $2,400) compensation payment in 2013 for her seven-acre farm.
‘‘I was afraid, because the local authorities threatened that if I didn’t accept the compensation, I could end up with nothing,’’ said the former landowner, who now has two daughters working on the plantation. In 2013 it employed more than 600 workers, according to the BSR report.
Maung Win said that in order to cope psychologically with the loss of his land, he turned on himself.
“We were told that the government owns the land, the water, and the natural resources. I knew I was just going to feel pain if I didn’t forgive my loss. So I told myself I didn’t deserve the land anyway. We’re all just made of soil. It was the only way I could console myself and reconcile my feelings.’’
Villager Hnin Kyi said: “I had five acres of paddy, which they took and planted rubber on. Then they asked me to take 200,000 kyats an acre in compensation for it, so I got 1 million kyat [about $1,000]. I couldn’t complain, but I was not satisfied with the money and I am still thinking of my paddy field.
“Of course, I want my land back, because that land is all I had. This wish has lingered in my mind until now. I raised my children on paddy I grew on that land,’’ she said.
Kyin Oo of Shwe Yaung Pya village tract said: ‘‘We are like stupid people. We are uneducated. So they [business people and local authorities] can do anything to us. They threatened that we could lose our land and get nothing if we didn’t accept the compensation. So we couldn’t do anything except take it.’’
Other villagers expressed similar sentiments. Some complained that the gradual expansion of the plantation, which is surrounded by barbed wire, was cutting into land they use for grazing animals and collecting firewood, making their lives increasingly difficult.
Saw Min Thein, a KNU district officer at nearby Dawzangyi village, said he lacked detailed knowledge of the Shwe Yaung Pya case, but added that land disputes were a growing problem in the wider area due to a lack of clear land policy.
Villagers were often afraid, and felt unable to complain when private businesses arrived and declared they had government backing for land claims, he said.
Human rights groups have alleged in general terms that in remote areas, local KNU officials have sometimes been susceptible to pressure or bribes from business interests over land, to the detriment of villagers’ rights.
Open for Talks
Thaung Han said that if a sizeable number of villagers wished to raise concerns, the company was willing to give the matter consideration. “But it would be difficult for the company to do something if a few people come and knock on the door for additional compensation every now and then,” he added.
The chief operating officer expressed concern that ‘‘agendas’’ might have been at work as the recent compensation claims surfaced in the run-up to the annual update of the US Treasury Department’s Burma sanctions list, which was announced last week.
“Our chairman wants to be removed from the sanctions [list]. Some people are aware of that. So it’s a very good opportunity for them to make a new claim,’’ he said in an interview at the company offices earlier this month.
“And if, for the benefit of local people, he [Zaw Zaw] might be willing to open negotiations about returning compensated land and adopting a business model similar to small-holder farms, it’s also convenient for some people to exploit that situation,’’ said Thaung Han.
Zaw Zaw was placed on the US blacklist in 2009. A leaked US diplomatic cable two years earlier described him as an ‘‘up and coming crony’’ who ‘‘actively seeks favor with the senior generals” who ruled the country at the time.
‘Trying to Be a Role Model’
Disputes arising from past land appropriations for commercial agriculture as well as other projects including industrial zones, special economic zones, hotel zones, pipelines and ports look set to present the new government with one of its thorniest problems in the years to come.
It is due to set up a commission to investigate thousands of complaints, many involving land appropriated by the military, government ministries and private firms, according to Ba Myo Thein of the Upper House’s Farmers’ Affairs Committee. At least 80 new complaints have been received since the new government took office, he said.
“Information about land-grabbing under the former military regime is growing, along with people’s awareness of the problem and willingness to speak out about it,’’ said Vicky Bowman of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business.
Companies will continue to be exposed to legal action and community protests until national land policy is improved, she said.
It was significant that Max Myanmar had negotiated and settled with landowners in Chaung Tha, she said, adding that to her knowledge it was the “only one’’ to have done this.
Meanwhile, in brief comments earlier this month, Max Myanmar’s chairman, Zaw Zaw, struck a conciliatory note on the dispute at the rubber plantation that he said still hasn’t become profitable.
“We will try our best to be transparent and responsible to the villagers,’’ he said.
“We care very much about transparent and responsible business, as we are now trying to be trusted by the international community and the public. We are trying hard to be a role model.”