Villagers slowly return to former communities in search of confiscated land
December 18, 2012
HURFOM: More than ten years ago, the neighboring villages of Chapon and Ah Mae in northern Ye Township were home to roughly 600 households, with numerous farms, orchards, and rubber plantations driving a prosperous local economy. However, after years of land confiscation and other human rights abuses by the Burmese military, hundreds of residents were driven into poverty or forced to flee the area. Local villager Mi Than Myit explained that, today, Chapon is home to just 38 families.
After the New Mon State Party signed its first ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1995, incidents of land confiscation, forced porter duty, restrictions to mobility, and extortion were regularly perpetrated by troops stationed at the nearby Navy Unit No. 43 and Light Infantry Battalion No. 282 bases. The villages of Chapon, Ah Mae, Min Htar, Yengain Kyi, Zinsoi, and Kywe Thone Nyi Ma lost a total of 4,000 acres of rubber plantations to military seizure, and their populations dwindled as young boys and men fled from mounting forced labor.
“Today, the village is as silent as a cemetery. To use religious terms, [the period of military abuses] was hell. In our religion, suffering in hell happens after death, but we were suffering in a living hell, and many residents left the village. Now, we are relying on the Mon members of parliament who work on land confiscation issues to try to get our rubber plantations back,” said Chapon resident Nai Ngae.
Nai Pha Luu, also from Chapon, said, “In the past, this village was filled with households and was peaceful to live in, but [the violations] persisted and we could not work in peace. We always had to worry that [the naval troops] would order us to do porter duty or arrest us under suspicion that we had contact with some robber group. Most land, including mine, was confiscated and the villagers faced job shortages. If the military troops had never come, our village would not be desolate like it is now and our future would not be short of hope.”
According to villagers, even as President Thein Sein took office in 2011 and the democratic transition began to build momentum, Navy Unit No. 43 continued to seize land in direct opposition to fledgling reforms.
“Although we are in a period of [democratization], we have not gotten our confiscated land back from Navy Unit No. 43. Most of the people who are now working in foreign countries were landowners before. When we think about that, we feel very sad for our land. After [some of] my land was confiscated, I wanted to go abroad like other people did, but I could not leave my remaining four acres even though they didn’t provide enough income. There were many people who could not leave their land like me. Although we already submitted a letter regarding the land issue to Mon [members of] parliament, we heard nothing from them and feel discouraged by their actions,” said 47-year-old Min Tar resident Nai Ah Jaw.
A former NMSP township administrator from Yebyu Township who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “It is sad to hear about abuses like the ones in the past occurring now in this transitional period. These [land confiscation] violations are caused by the military and relate directly to business activities, and the local government and the [armed] ethnic groups do nothing to solve the problem.”
“Any commerce or community issues linked to the military cannot be influenced by local or district-level government. When we see that, we see that the military is still in power. The military abused the residents in so many ways and could easily confiscate land after the residents were driven from the village. The problem is also related to the development of the [special economic] zone and the Dawei deep-sea port project. No one can guess how much profit the military and the authorities will make from the land they confiscated once these locations [are converted into] a huge port and national trading site in the future.”
Since Navy Unit No. 43 relocated to another area earlier this year, some former residents have begun to return to their native villages in the hopes that previously seized property will be restored as part of the country’s reform process. But locals say it will be a long time before the communities regain their former size and productivity. Chapon does not have a motorway connecting it to urban centers, and boats can only be used for transportation in the rainy season, making the import of materials for construction and improvements difficult. Some villagers want to move back but worry there is no land available to cultivate, while others found reliable work in Thanbyuzayat Township and doubt the viability of economic opportunities at home. In spite of the challenges, village administrators and residents continue to submit letters of appeal requesting officials to return confiscated land.
Former Ah Mae resident Nai Baw now works on a rubber plantation in southern Thailand. He said, “We will not forget the difficult times we lived through. In order to rebuild the village, the residents will return when the troops stop abusing local people and treating them inhumanely, even if the military does not give compensation for what they did. We are waiting for the day that the military stops abusing all people.”