In Kachin, Burma’s Reforms Seem a World Away

By Thein Lei Win 13 November 2013

SHWE NYAUNG PIN, Kachin State — In this farming village an hour’s drive from the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, a few families ended up with nothing to eat when fighting broke out near their farms at the end of last year, just before the harvest. Fighting also destroyed villages beyond Shwe Nyaung Pin.

“I don’t even know whether the paddy turned out sweet, sour or bitter,” said Ma Ran La, who cultivates rice to support 12 family members. “Fighting has stopped but we’re too scared to go there because there may be mines.”

While farmers in Kachin State have struggled to make ends meet because of poor soil, a lack of irrigation, low yields and chronic indebtedness, others like Ma Ran La have been hampered by conflict.

In nearby villages, there are regular food shortages of up to six months during the pre-harvest “lean season,” while many farmers had their land confiscated by the military decades ago.

This troubled snapshot signals the failure of Burma’s much-lauded reforms to reach Kachin—a state bordering China that is impoverished despite its billion-dollar jadeite industry. It also illustrates the challenges the government faces in the country’s most resource-rich areas, which are home to ethnic groups who have suffered human rights abuses by the powerful military.

Once known as the rice bowl of Asia, Burma still produces enough basic grains that some are exported. Yet in Kachin, landlessness and ongoing clashes between the army and ethnic Kachin rebels have exacerbated food insecurity.

Sporadic clashes since June 2011, shortly after Burma’s reformist government took power, have displaced about 100,000 people. Meetings in Myitkyina on Nov. 4 and 5 between leaders of various ethnic armed groups and government negotiators ended without a nationwide ceasefire agreement the government had hoped for, though both sides did agree to further talks.

The conflict is both a symptom and a result of Kachin’s long list of grievances:

  •     Rights activists say smallholdings are at risk from agribusinesses that are exploiting the lack of recognition and protection of customary land rights in ethnic areas and have already gained huge tracts of land for large-scale agriculture.
  •     Infrastructure, too, is very poor. Roads have potholes as big as the buses, and when night falls on Myitkyina, the drone of generators rises over the city, which locals say has been bereft of electricity for the past two months.
  •     Government-run factories are shuttered. Locals say efforts are under way to restart the controversial Chinese-led Myitsone hydropower project, but Kachin would have benefited little, as 90 percent of the electricity that would have been generated by the US$3.6 billion dam was to go to China. Under public pressure, the project was suspended in June 2011.

Experts say socio-economic progress—and peace in Burma—will come only if the government grants the ethnic groups in its border areas a degree of self-government.

“I do not see real peace without dignity—that is, some self-government and safety from arbitrary use of force—and without peace there will not be progress,” David Dapice, an economist and Burma expert at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Farmers Borrow Rice

Agriculture is the most important source of income for 61 percent of households in Burma’s hilly areas including Kachin, according to the Livelihood and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), a multidonor fund managed by the United Nations.

Burma’s government says agriculture, which employs almost two-thirds of the country’s population, is key to alleviating poverty in a country where more than a quarter of the population live on less than $1.25 a day.

Yet Ma Ran La, who normally reaps a decent annual harvest, was forced by the fighting to borrow 30 baskets of rice from the village rice bank and another 40 from neighboring households to feed his family.

The rice bank—established in January 2012 by Swiss Aid and Kachin State Urban Rural Mission, with funding from LIFT—offers villagers cheaper rice loans.

“Normally, the interest for borrowing rice is 100 percent. If you borrow one basket, you have to give back two,” said Khun Mine, the bank’s volunteer accountant. “Here, if you borrow one basket, you only have to pay back one and a half. It’s a lot more affordable.”

Still, 50 percent is crippling.

With the right monsoon, the three to four acres of rice that Ma Ran La cultivates every year yield up to 100 baskets an acre, compared with an average of 40 baskets an acre. However, he will have to forfeit 125 baskets to repay the borrowed rice, including the 50 percent interest to the rice bank and 100 percent to neighbors.

Landlessness is another reason for food shortages.

In Shwe Nyaung Pin, only about 10 families own land, as the Burmese army confiscated about 80 acres in the early 1990s. Landless farmers have to rent land in order to cultivate, paying five baskets of rice per acre.

In mid-October, when this reporter visited the village, the army had assured the confiscated land would be returned. It is now being measured, said the villagers, who hope the extra 80 acres of farmland will reduce the number of people going hungry.

Other areas have not been so lucky. In Loi Sunt and Upper Maw Hpawng villages, several hundred acres of land confiscated two decades ago remain in the hands of the military, villagers said.

In Loi Sunt, many villagers say they now pay the military rent to work on what used to be their land.

In Upper Maw Hpawng, a village elder who has been pushing for the return of the land lamented that most land is gone.

“There are almost no landowners in this village anymore,” said Taung Jone.

The lush little village is near an air force battalion, one of three military camps that grabbed about 400 acres of farmland, fish ponds and homes, he said, adding that he was never offered compensation for the eight acres of farmland he lost.

Taung Jone is now part of a small project, also funded by LIFT, helping 30 households raise chickens for extra income. The 600,000 kyats (around $600) he earned from the chickens in 2013 helped to pay his children’s school fees and other expenses.

The villagers’ big hope, however, is that as part of Burma’s reforms, they will get their land back.

In May and again in July, they sent letters to the parliamentary commission investigating land grabs, enclosing proof of their ownership.

“We have yet to hear from the authorities,” Taung Jone said.