Land confiscations in Kyaikmayaw Township, Mon State

August 14, 2013

Mon Human Rights Foundation of Monland

Introduction

In recent months the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) has been surveying on-going cases of land confiscation in Mon areas as well as attempts by farmers to seek justice for past confiscations.  With a full report soon to be published detailing the status of these issues, the short report here offers a preliminary account of one of the more prominent cases of land confiscation encountered in the regions surveyed.

DSC000720Since 2009 residents in Kyaikmayaw Township, Mon State have faced land confiscation at the hands of various domestic companies. These companies plan to establish a cement industry in the region, utilizing valuable limestone found in the township’s mountain ranges. Despite a climate of reform in the country since Thein Sein’s government came to power in 2011, land confiscations in Kyaikmayaw Township have continued unabated and resulting disputes remain unresolved. Due to these confiscations farmers have lost their livelihoods, and many have had little choice but to join the low-paid and widely exploited migrant workforce in neighbouring countries.

On a national level, the Burmese government have repeatedly promised improvements to the lives of the country’s smallholder farmers, with pledges of rapid economic development and support of a transition to mechanized farming methods. However, in reality little has been seen to signal a real commitment to promoting these farmers’ rights and interests. Rather than benefitting smallholder farmers, actions to further the country’s development have increasingly been carried out at their expense. A flurry of new land laws in 2012 notably prioritised gains by large-scale investors, who have been able to take advantage of weaknesses in these laws to obtain high value land at a low cost. Significantly, this has been with the support of corrupt local administration, and has involved exploitation of farmers lacking knowledge of even the imperfect rights currently granted to them by law. Land disputes in Kyaikmayaw are a prominent example of a new wave of confiscations that, far from being condemned by the government, has in fact been facilitated by law and championed in the name of “development”.

Exploitation of Kyaikmayaw farmers by new investors

Since 2009 land confiscations have been carried out throughout Kyaikmayaw Township by the Zay Kabar Company, Pacific Link Cement Industries Ltd., June Industry Co. Ltd. and Hexa Company Ltd. Areas affected include Kaw Pa Naw, Mae Kro, Nee Thone, Kaw Doon, Kon Ngan, Ka Don Sit, Pauk Taw and Kaw Kwan villages. These confiscations were made following orders from the Nay Pyi Daw government, who sanctioned confiscation of this land in order to develop cement production in Kyaikmayaw Township.

Throughout the case, severe misconduct is alleged to have taken place. Local residents are reported to have been intimidated into relinquishing their land in the course of negotiations with authorities from Nay Pyi Daw, local administrators, and company management from Rangoon. In particular, farmers are alleged to have been pressurised into accepting minimal compensation for the land, with threats made that if they failed to do so then land would seized by the government with no compensation. Reportedly, the companies involved also tried to persuade residents by gentler means, promising road construction and improved access to electricity, education and health services. However, to date none of these promises have been fulfilled.

Local farmers from Mae Kro and Nee Thone villaages spoke to HURFOM about their treatment at the hand of Hexa Company Ltd. and Zay Kabar Company. According to one 55-year-old farmer from Mae Kro village:

 “In 2009 it was announced that the Hexa company would confiscate land [in Mae Kro village] and construct a cement plant. In late 2009, Pyae Khaing Phyo from the Hexa Company Limited, the Land Records department from Kyaikmayaw and Nee Thone village administrator Kyaw Aye tried to confiscate the land using the power of the Government. [The investors] did not confiscate it until 2010, so for a year we were in fear [of confiscation] while we worked on our land. In 2010 the Zay Kabar company started to construct a cement plant, after extracting raw materials from Nee Thone [by this point the Hexa Company had pulled out of the deal and been replaced by the Zay Kabar company]. They [said they would] would take away the land as soon as they could, and compensated us 100,000 Kyat per acre of land. [They said that] if we didn’t comply with the government project [that they were carrying out], we would lose our land without compensation”.

A 60-year-old Nee Thone village resident talked about the corruption that caused him to lose out on even the minimal compensation that he had been promised: “U Khin Shwe [the owner of Zay Kabar Company] and U Hein Aung Shwe [manager of Zay Kabar company] made Nee Thone’s village administrator Kyaw Tun and some [other] members of local administration sign [paperwork on the behalf of local farmers] and confiscated my land. The people who signed on our behalf took the compensation. The people who signed for us were U Kyaw Tun and his staff member Chit Thaung.”

Similar stories were reported regarding confiscations by the June Industry Co. Ltd. In early 2011 June Industry Co. Ltd unofficially confiscated 312.36 acres of lands from Mae Ka Ro village, to the east of Kyaikmayaw Township’s Ataran River, in order to construct a cement plant. On 1 January 2011, the local administrator from Kyaikmayaw Township and Dr Daw Nu Nu Win (official representative from the June Industry Co. Ltd) told Mae Ka Ro farmers that their land would be confiscated to implement a cement production project. Working together with local administrators, Daw Nu Nu Win’s group frightened farmers into handing over their land, appealing to the rule of law and citing state interests to justify the confiscation. The farmers affected allege that they were forced to accept compensation far below the market value of their land.

Misuse of power by authorities

Instead of protecting villagers lacking knowledge of their rights, local authorities are noted to have cooperated with domestic companies to encourage them in their exploitation. Local authorities in Kyaikmayaw Township reportedly accepted bribes from company staff in exchange for their support in confiscating land from local farmers. U Kyaw Tun, administrator of Nee Thone village, allegedly received 350,000 Kyat per acre of land confiscated from the Zay Kabar company. Local residents claim that he faked landowners’ signatures in order to sell their land to the company.

“Although the signatures [on the land documents] were signed on our behalf in December [2010], we only found out about [the land confiscation] in January [2011]”, said one female, 55, from Nee Thone village. “The people who signed the papers were village administrator U Kyaw Tun, and members of quarter administration U Kon Par and Nai Mg Aye. I did not know [then], but they got money for my land when they signed the papers. I cannot stand for what they did to my land.”

A Mae Ka Ro villager spoke out about how his 17 acres of land were confiscated by authorities, who misused law and order to exploit local farmers:

“Dr Nu Nu Win and her group from June Industry Co. Ltd came to meet the farmers from Mae Karo and Nee Thone [villages] whose land would be affected by the cement plant project. In front of township administrators, [June Industry Co. Ltd] divided up the land by quality. They [said that they] would pay 350,000 Kyat for Level 1 land, 300,000 Kyat for Level 2, 50,000 Kyat for Level 3, and 15,000 Kyat for Level 4. If the farmers did not accept what they were offering they tried to use the law to make difficulties for the farmers.”

A 57-year-old villager, who lost five acres of land, detailed the involvement of local authorities in land confiscations:

“They introduced themselves, where they came from and what their positions were, but they did not tell us their names. They told us that our country needed raw materials for cement, so they would extract as much raw material as they needed from Nee Thone mountain near our village. Therefore, they needed the farms where we were growing paddy.”

With susceptibility to corruption and poor judgement commonly noted in the conduct of low-level authorities, legal experts have expressed concern about the level of decision-making power on land issues delegated to them by law. Burma’s law stipulates that land disputes should first be handled at a village or ward level, before being referred on to higher levels if necessary. A law graduate, 30, from Ye Township commented, “I have heard a lot of about farmers in Kyaikmayaw, Mudon, Thanbyuzayat, and Ye Townships being oppressed [by authorities]. By law, lower or junior people [in administration] should not be allowed to make decisions on, seek justice for, or investigate cases of land confiscation because the results are worse [than when higher levels of administration carry out these tasks].”

Land confiscation in the name of the nation

To facilitate land confiscation, discourage farmers from refusing to hand over land, and justify low rates of compensation, companies and local authorities have used rhetoric that presents on-going land confiscations as being carried out for the good of the nation.

When the Zay Ka Bar company came to confiscate land in Nee Thone village, the village administrator U Kyaw Tun talked in terms of the good of the “country” or “nation” to intimidate farmers into giving up their land. Farmers were told that the compensation offered was adequate, and that if they refused to accept it the case would be handed over to the government, who would seize the land with no compensation paid.

A Mae Ka Ro villager, 59, who had 10 acres of land confiscated by the June Industry Co. Ltd., spoke out about how residents had no one to turn to for justice after the companies involved obtained the endorsement of local authorities:

“Dr Nu Nu Win, who invested the most [in the cement plant] and has a good relationship with the government, confiscated our land and gave us 50,000 Kyat per acre via the administrator. But we did not get compensation for all 10 acres. Kyaikmayaw Township administrator, standing up for Dr Nu Nu Win, told us that we would lose our land without payment if we refused [to hand over the land]. They intimidated us and we did not have anyone to rely on.”

A woman who had five acres of land confiscated by the same company spoke about a visit by June Industry Co. Ltd management in February 2011,  “Dr Nu Nu Win, Kyaikmayaw authorities and Land Records Department staff often came to frighten and compel us. They said that, as shown by the land law, all land is owned by government, so they had the right to confiscate [our land] since this is a government project. Even if it is cultivated and worked on, if the country needs [the land] then they should be allowed to use it.”

No legal protection for smallholder farmers

It is widely commented that law and order in Burma, rather than providing protection for its citizens, facilitates oppression by corrupt authorities. With laws unclear and farmers often insufficiently informed of their rights, government departments are able to manipulate the law and present large-scale confiscations as legally justified.

“Kyaikmayaw Township administrators and the township Land Records Department brought the land records staff [with them] when they came to confiscate the land. We now realize that they tricked us, using land law to get benefits from us when we did not understand the land law well”, said a 54-year- old Mae Ka Ro villager who previously owned seven acres of land.

According to a 60-year-old woman who lost nine acres of land, “I did not accept their compensation when my land was confiscated, but the village administrator accepted money on my behalf. How could I agree with them? They just paid 60,000 Kyat per acre. However, the village administrator intervened to accept the money. In fact, it was entirely unfair land confiscation because I did not sign my signature. Daw Nu Nu Win from the [June] company even brought Union Solidarity and Development Party members from Kyaikmayaw with her when she came to us. The Kyaikmayaw Township administrator and members of the Land Records Department showed us on the map exactly which land would be confiscated.”

Burma’s land law does not protect Burma’s smallholder farmers, but instead legitimises this kind of exploitation, corruption and misuse of authority by companies and local authorities. The new 2012 Farmland Law, Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law (VFV Law), and Foreign Investment Law are noted to prioritise the interests of wealthy investors over those of the rural farming population.

According to rule No. 78 of the 2012 Farmland Law’s implementing rules, if investors want to create new projects they have the right to do so after seeking permission from the government. Further to this, by the VFV Law investors establishing new projects are able to obtain up to 5,000 acres of land classified as vacant, fallow or virgin at any one time, up to a total of 50,000 acres for a single project. The new laws fail to establish land tenure security, instead sanctioning large-scale projects that utilize farmland for new purposes. Thus wealthy individuals and businesses are by law encouraged to purchase land to construct factories and pursue their own gain.

A law graduate commented on the insecure position of farmers in past legal frameworks and the need to create new legislation to address this protection gap, “Both the 1953 and 1963 land laws contained no written protection of farmers’ rights. A new land law should be passed to protect farmers.”

This reflects the view of many that, taken as a whole, the branches of Administration, Legislation, and Judiciary together fail to protect the rights of farmers, and instead facilitate their oppression.

Departure from a homeland

After their land was confiscated, farmers who had been living and working peacefully on their ancestral land migrated to new homes. Having lost their livelihoods they sought employment abroad, despite awareness of poor conditions for migrant workers in foreign countries.

According to a 60-year-old woman whose nine acres of land were taken, “There were good resources and palm trees on my farm. I got at least 65 baskets of paddy [from the farm] every year. But now my daughter has to enter Thailand to earn a daily income, as others have done. If possible, even if I do not get all of [the land] back, I would like to get some. That land was all we had to survive.”

A 54-year-old man commented, “The seven acres of land was what we relied on for our survival. If we have no land, we can do nothing except enter Thailand as slaves.”

A woman, 48, who lost six acres of land talked to HURFOM about becoming landless, and the resulting separation of her family members. Both her younger son and elder daughter went to Thailand for work. She demanded that upper authorities seek justice on her family’s behalf for unjustified confiscation of their land.

A sacrifice in vain

Farmers have expressed frustrations that, whilst companies began confiscating land from farmers in Kyaikmayaw Township in 2009, planned cement projects have yet to be implemented.

 “The companies and authorities have not done anything yet on the confiscated land. Most of the land is covered in grass now”, said one 59-year-old man. “How could we be content after 10 acres of our land were confiscated? It broke our whole family’s life.”

A 54-year-old villager who once owned seven acres of land said, “We don’t know yet whether or not they will build the cement plant. After our land was confiscated, we had no jobs. We have been working on it [the family’s land] for a year [despite the land being confiscated]. If people from the company come to stop us we will face them. Like other people, we cannot stand for the forced confiscation of our ancestral land in the name of the country”.

Calls for justice

Recently, recognising the injustice of past land confiscations, farmers have been trying to reclaim their land through various means. Victims of land confiscation in Kyaikmayaw Township are some of many farmers appealing to government authorities and the newly established Land Investigation Commission to seek justice for their land.

“If I don’t get back all 17.33 acres of my land, I am hoping to get some”, said one farmer. “As other people have done, we submitted a letter of appeal to the Land Investigation Commission. I would like to request that the people and organizations participating in land affairs continue to help us get our land back. If we have no farm, we cannot move forwards [in our lives]. Before the government was the one who directly confiscated [land], but now the companies bribe them [to support confiscations] to make their own profit. They should stop acting in this way, and also the country should punish them. We hope that the country will follow us in what we have requested.”

A 59-year-old farmer talked about the need for legal advice for local farmers, “[The farmers] need help from other organizations because they do not have enough experience in land law. The Peace and Diversity party, that is helping with land affairs, visited us in 2011. We need more people like them and [information] about laws and rights. We do not know much about it.”

One resident, 61, spoke out about how she would like to get compensation for her property at its current market value:

“It was not fair because they misused the rule of law to intimidate us [into selling the land]. I was one of those who submitted a letter directly to the President. Our demand was to get our land back. We will give back their compensation [if the land is returned]. If we have no land, how can we survive? We are now living [in] very poor [conditions]. Eventually, if the company completes construction of its cement plant, the government will have to make sure that we are compensated with today’s price [of the land]. It is fair that we get today’s price as compensation. They confiscated our 10.29 acres of land in 2011. We got 65 or 70 baskets of paddy per acre from our ancestral land. If we evaluate [the land] at today’s price, we should get 25 million Kyat.”

On 27 June 2013 migrant workers from Kyaikmayaw Township working in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore also sent letters of appeal concerning confiscated land to the President.

Conclusion

While there has been a period of dramatic reform in Burma, smallholder farmers like those in Kyaikmayaw township have failed to receive benefits from the transition, instead facing a continued lack of land tenure security and new waves of land grabbing. Weakness of new land laws, continued corruption in authorities, and growing numbers of exploitative businessmen have together ensured that Burma’s large farming population remain in an insecure position. Villagers from Kyaikmayaw Township join numerous voices currently seeking justice for farmers who have lost their land, their income and in many cases even their homes.

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