‘This Is Our Land—and That’s the Truth’: Pa-O Farmers Challenge Myanmar Military

By Nyein Nyein 10 June 2020

Much is in dispute surrounding nearly 2,000 acres of farmland in the ethnic Pa-O region of Hsi Hseng Township in southern Shan State, but native farmer Moe Bae is sure of two things: the land is owned by local farmers like her, and the military took it by force.

The 58-year-old is among more than 200 farmers who have been growing crops on over 1,900 acres (about 770 hectares) of farmland in the area since the early 1990s. Until early last month, the Pa-O farmer tended nursery corn and paddy on 8 acres of land she owned in Naung Kyaw Village-tract. But on May 17, soldiers came and destroyed many of the seasonal crops in the surrounding fields, including hers, claiming that nearly 2,000 acres of land in at least six villages in the area was military property.

Adding to the farmers’ dismay, in the same month the soldiers seized 29 hand-held tractor plows and filed complaints against nearly 30 farmers, including Moe Bae, suing them for trespassing under Article 447 of the Penal Code. Article 447 states, “Whoever commits criminal trespass shall be punished with imprisonment … for a term which may extend to three months, or with a fine which may extend to 50,000 kyats [about US$36], or with both.”

“It is obvious that the military confiscated our land by force. We were neither informed about the confiscation nor paid compensation. This land is ours and we will continue growing our crops,” Moe Bae said.

Other farmers, most of them elderly women, said they had no choice but to keep working on the farms and “would face trial if they sue us, because we don’t have anything apart from the land.”

Bitter legacy

Ownership disputes arising from the confiscation of land by the armed forces are among the many negative legacies of the military dictatorship that ruled Myanmar from 1988 to 2011. The military regime confiscated land for government departments as well as for its own use. Exactly how much land was confiscated is not known. Answering a question in the Lower House of Parliament in November last year, U Tin Myint, the deputy minister of the Union Government Office, said the Central Committee for Scrutinizing Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands—the agency responsible for handling land disputes—decided to return 526,096 acres of unused farmland and other land to the original owners, of which 508,852 acres had so far been returned.

Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said last week that the military had returned more than 200,000 acres of land that had been seized for Defense Ministry uses across the country since the previous government’s Central Committee for Scrutinizing Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands was formed in 2013.

The problem has continued to fester under the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) government, and many land complaints remain unresolved, with last month’s confrontation between Pa-O farmers and the military merely the latest incident.

Local people in Hsi Hseng said there were no military units based in the area until 1992, prior to which the area was controlled by the Pa-O National Organization (PNO), an ethnic Pa-O armed group led by U Aung Kham Hti. The arrival of Tatmadaw troops followed the PNO’s signing of a ceasefire with military leaders in April 1991. The PNO transformed itself into a political party with a militia that manages security in the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone, which is recognized as an autonomous region in the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. Its leaders remain close to the military and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Pa-O farmers surrender their hand-held tractor plows to the local police station as evidence in May. / Pa-O Youth Organization

From 1992 to 1996, the military confiscated more than 2,400 acres of land to the east and west of the Taunggyi-Hsi Hseng-Loikaw Road, which connects the capitals of Shan and Kayah states. The military used the land to build bases for two light infantry battalions: LIB 423 and 424. The military paid compensation for 151 acres, but the remainder of the land it obtained was designated as having been vacant and fallow. In 2013, the military released to local farmers another 200 acres, according to Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun. The 1,900 acres currently in dispute are among the land the military has yet to release.

The brigadier general told The Irrawaddy last Thursday that the military will keep the rest of the land for the battalions based in the area because it “has returned as much land as we can.”

He added that the military needs the land to construct buildings for use by military personnel, for security reasons, and to house soldiers’ families.

According to the government’s land policy, the military must compensate locals for the land it does not return.

The Defense Ministry was allocated 700 million kyats in the fiscal 2019-20 budget to pay land compensation. During the budget debate in the Union Parliament last month the ministry requested an additional 2,149.187 million kyats as a supplementary budget for FY2019-20. However, the spokesman did not say whether any of this money would be used to pay compensation for unreturned land.

Land farmed for decades

According to Moe Bae, local farmers planted crops in the fields in the area every year since 1996 without any problem. The military allowed them to farm on a temporary basis—until last month.

Last year, the military started blocking access to some parts of the villages, claiming the land was military-owned and threatening to sue “trespassers”. More than 70 farmers, including Moe Bae, had trespassing suits filed against them in four separate cases starting in August 2019, according to Nan Bo, a Pa-O youth helping the Hsi Hseng farmers. The police are still investigating the cases and none of the cases has yet been brought before a court.

However, on May 17, 30 soldiers arrived, destroying crops, seizing tractor plows and threatening legal action against farmers. They put up signs in the disputed areas reading: “This land is military-owned.”

When the farmers continued to work on the land, more signs were put up, stating that the farmers would be the subject of complaints and investigated by the Hsi Hseng Police Station under Article 447. As a result, according to the signs, no further farming would be allowed on military land until the dispute was settled in court. Those who ignored the warning would be subject to legal action for trespassing, the signs warned.

The farmers were undeterred, however, insisting that growing crops was the only way they had to make a living, adding that they had obtained agricultural loans from the government for that purpose.

They demanded the military return the farmland, which was lying unused, and urged it to respect their land rights.

“Our farmers want their lands back … because they have no other place to grow crops,” said U Khun Than Htoo, a Lower House lawmaker representing Hsi Hseng Township, reflecting the demands of many locals.

About 150 villagers from Htee Man, Naung Lon, Kaung Hmu Bwar villages in Pinsone Village-tract; Ho Khae quarter of Hsi Hseng town; and Mee Thway Kan and Kaung Thaung Yo villages of Naung Kyaw Village-tract have tried to grow crops on the land in question since June 2.

“If [they cannot farm the land], they will wind up in debt,” said Khun Oo, head of the Pa-O Youth Organization (PYO), which is helping local farmers defend their land rights.

On Wednesday, over 190 civil society groups including the PYO and villagers issued a statement calling on the military to return the land.

With tensions running high, the military’s Eastern Command, based in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, met the farmers last Thursday and returned the seized tractor plows. However, the farmers were required to sign a document promising police they would not plow the land again, Moe Bae said.

Khun Kyaw Naing, the administrator of Naung Kyaw Village-tract, said Major General Lin Aung, the head of the Tatmadaw’s Eastern Command, promised to return the tractor plows the soldiers had seized as evidence. However, the major general neither agreed to farmers’ demands that they be allowed to farm their customary lands, nor promised to withdraw plans to sue the farmers.

Instead, the administrator said, the commander asked the farmers “to recognize the lands as military property in exchange for being allowed to grow crops.”

Moe Bae and the administrator maintained that the land belonged to the locals, who depend solely on agriculture for their survival.

“We’ll keep on pulling together. We are right. We are not afraid; this is our land—and that’s the truth,” Moe Bae said.

Meanwhile the case is currently in the hands of the government’s central committee on farmland management.

On May 25, the farmers sent a letter calling for a resolution to the issue to the Central Committee for Scrutinizing Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands, led by Union Vice President U Henry Van Thio, and to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Shan State government. They are still waiting for an official reply, however.

Shan State Minister for Finance and Planning U Soe Nyunt Lwin, who visited Hsi Hseng on Sunday, told the farmers that the Central Committee is considering the cases and would soon come to assess the area.

A sign put up in May declaring the surrounding land to be owned by the Myanmar military. / Pa-O Youth Organization

Lack of land titles 

While the disputes over land use continue, the Pa-O SAZ’s leaders are doing what they can to ease tensions.

U Khun San Lwin, the head of the Pa-O SAZ, said their intervention involves sharing the farmers’ concerns with the state- and Union-level confiscated farmlands management committees.

At the meeting with the Eastern Command chief on June 3, U Khun San Lwin, who is also the PNO chairman, asked the military to let the farmers work the land this season. He acknowledged the request was just an attempt to find a short-term solution.

The military commander merely told the farmers their concerns would be reported to his superior, however.

In Myanmar, land disputes remain a huge problem, with authorities’ view of confiscated land as vacant, fallow and virgin conflicting with locals’ claims of traditional land-use and land tenure practice.

The military considers the seized land vacant and fallow, insisting that locals only have a right to claim the land if they possess the proper land title document, known as Form 105, in spite of the fact that they have used the lands for traditional shifting cultivation for years.

Land titles were difficult to obtain under the military regime, partly because there was no office responsible for assessing land revenue, explained lawmaker Khun Than Htoo.

“It was difficult to obtain the Form 105 under the junta, so they were not able to get to land titles. Therefore, the military only paid compensation for a little over 150 of the more than 2,400 acres of confiscated land [in Hsi Hseng, the current disputed area] in 1996. But the locals have been utilizing the land for plantations, practicing their traditional land tenure and land-use system. In ethnic areas, including the Pa-O region, people tend to use shifting cultivation as land was abundant [in the past],” the lawmaker said.

He added that local farmers are seeking to establish land ownership in accordance with the new land policy of the civilian government. Under the NLD’s new land policy, which was developed in 2016, farmers whose lands were confiscated after 1988 but who do not have land titles can seek ownership if local elders provide confirmation that they traditionally own the land. The Pa-O farmers are still awaiting the government’s intervention.

At the same time, as local farmers become more aware of their land rights, disputes like the one in the Pa-O SAZ are likely to be replicated elsewhere in Myanmar.

Meanwhile in Hsi Hseng, farmers like Moe Bae are in limbo. With their complaints awaiting a response from the Union-level land dispute committee and the police having filed cases against them, some have decided to wait for further developments, but others are already venturing out into the fields to grow crops, now that the rainy season has arrived.

“We will face whatever charge they [the military] file against us, because we have been growing on these lands for decades, since long before the military came to settle here,” Moe Bae said.