Photo: Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier
A view of Kayah State's richly forested mountains and fertile valleys, which are coveted by the military. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Military land-grabbing gathers pace under cover of conflict


People gather to harvest the rich green fields along the road from Taunggyi to Hsi Hseng. None of them, however, are wearing the usual indigo tunics and multi-colour turbans of Pa-O people, who predominate in this area of southern Shan State.

“They are soldiers and their families from military battalions based nearby,” Khun Thet Oo*, a farmer, explained to Frontier. “It hurts so much to see soldiers working on our fields instead of us. We have been working on these lands since the times of our ancestors. How dare they say the land is theirs.”

The area was a war zone until a 1991 ceasefire agreement between the military and the Pa-O National Organisation, which transformed the PNO into a military-aligned militia. Over the following decades, the military and its new ally seized swathes of land, depriving many Pa-O of their traditional livelihoods.

In 2018, according to locals, Light Infantry Battalions 423 and 424 declared that 2,200 acres in three villages and four wards of Hsi Hseng Township belonged to the military.

The following year, the military filed criminal trespassing complaints against 67 farmers who refused to vacate the land and a long, one-sided legal battle ensued. The military won the first round in the township court last October and again in the district court in November. Farmers then appealed to the Shan State High Court but their case was dismissed last month. They are now planning to appeal to the Union Supreme Court, but with little hope of success.

Khun Oo, head of the Pa-O Youth Organization, said the villagers were the rightful owners of the land but stood little chance in military-controlled courts. “The judicial system is in ruins now so the military can do whatever they want. The farmers are helpless,” he told Frontier.

He has said the PYO was trying to support them, but that there was only so much it could do to help given the crackdown on civic space since the 2021 military coup. “Since the coup, we have hidden from the military and their militia groups,” he said.

Before the coup and while the case was going through the courts, farmers were able to keep working in some of the fields. But no longer. The military has threatened to shoot any people or animals they find “trespassing” on the land.

Last year, soldiers and their families started farming about 300 acres on the west side of the road in Hsi Hseng that connects it to Taunggyi, the Shan State capital. Now they are expanding to the east.

“We don’t dare to speak out like before because we are afraid of their guns,” Thet Oo said.

During the trial of the 67 farmers, the military claimed that from 1992 to 1996, it acquired more than 2,400 acres of land to the east and west of the strategic road, which continues southwards from Hsi Hseng to the Kayah State capital Loikaw. It used the land to build bases for the two light infantry battalions. The military said it paid compensation for 151 acres but that the rest was designated as vacant and fallow, meaning that by law the land had no established owners.

The local Pa-O say they often lack official documents to prove their hereditary land claims, while the community’s customary forms of tenure are not legally protected.

Laws since the British colonial era have designated most of Myanmar’s customary-held land as idle “wasteland”, allowing it to be appropriated for state or private enterprises. This was replicated in the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Land Management Law passed by the military-backed government of President U Thein Sein in 2012. Under this law, a third of Myanmar’s landmass was considered vacant, fallow or virgin, and therefore ripe for commercial exploitation. Eighty-two percent of this land was in ethnic nationality states.

Amendments to the law passed by the subsequent National League for Democracy government in 2018 worsened land tenure security by setting a six-month deadline for anyone occupying such land to apply for a commercial-style permit or face a potential prison sentence for trespassing. The law exempted “customary lands designated under traditional culture of ethnic people” but without defining what this meant, making it unclear how farmers could qualify for this exemption.

Pa-O women wait for the arrival of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during a voter education campaign at Hsi Hseng Township in Shan State on September 5, 2015. (AFP)

Khun Oo of the PYO said some of the prosecuted farmers had documents such as tax receipts that showed de-facto ownership, but they still lost in court.

“Their ancestors worked these lands. They planted crops yearly and paid taxes regularly. These traditions ended because of the law passed [under the influence of] the big monopolies and powerful people,” he said, referring to the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Land Management Law. “The land law allowed people with money and power to seize as much land as they could. People’s lives are in chaos because of it.”

They do what they want and say it’s for security reasons’

How much land in Myanmar has been confiscated by the military – for security reasons, for government departments and out of commercial interests – is not known. The total may run into millions of acres.

In mid-2020 the military said it had returned more than 200,000 acres of land taken by the Defence Ministry across the country. The military “has returned as much land as they can”, a spokesperson was reported as saying. In 2019 the government agency handling land disputes told parliament that it had decided to return over 526,096 acres of land to their original owners.

However, many land disputes remained unresolved at the time of the 2021 coup, and the military takeover and ensuing conflict has coincided with a slew of fresh land grabs. One army unit, Light Infantry Battalion 54, is accused by residents of seizing 300 acres of land in Loikaw Township in Kayah, where fighting with local People’s Defence Forces has been particularly intense, and civilians have been targeted by the military.

A member of Karenni (Kayah) State Farmers’ Union told Frontier that the military is seizing land abandoned by villagers fleeing the conflict.

“It is difficult to say just how much land they have taken, but for sure they keep seizing our land and homes. They have even occupied big houses and turned them into bunkers. They do what they want and say it’s for security reasons. You risk your life by arguing back,” the KSFU member said, asking not to be named.

According to KSFU surveys, the military seized 8,328 acres in Kayah from 1990 to 2011, and an additional 50,000 acres by 2019.

More land has been seized since the coup for the military’s two vast corporate conglomerates, which supply materials to the armed forces and are major sources of revenue.

Residents of Aunglan Township in Magway Region say the junta announced last July that it would take over nearly 80 acres of land from three village tracts for the No. 1 Steel Mill run by the Myanmar Economic Corporation. The land was confiscated two months later.

“It’s not clear yet whether we will get any compensation. No one dares to oppose it. We don’t know where and who we can ask for help,” U Myint Kyaing*, a resident of Myinkapaing said.

Land there was first confiscated for the steel factory before it started production in 1997, and for the construction of roads and a railway. Farmers sought compensation during President Thein Sein’s 2011-16 administration, and in May 2018 the factory paid K1.5 million to K1.8 million per acre to more than 90 farmers who had lost their lands.

A farmer works in a sesame field in Magway Region on July 7, 2019. (AFP)

U Tin Linn Aung, a former member of the National Land Use Council formed under the ousted civilian government, said the limited legal protections for land tenure were rarely enforced and the military was seizing land at will.

“If a company or families close to the military want some land, the owners have to get out without any questions. This is the reality for landholders after the coup. There is no justice now,” said Tin Linn Aung, who is in hiding and wanted by the military.

He said the military is seizing land across the country, particularly in non-Bamar areas, but that the full extent is unknown because villagers cannot reach out as before to media and civil society organisations, many of which must now operate underground.

Landowners to slaves in another country’

Last June the junta announced plans to build an international airport and a port city in Mon State, stirring up great anxiety in Mudon Township, where thousands of acres are at risk of being confiscated.

Local and foreign investors have shown little interest in the projects, which independent economists and civil society groups have said are impractical. A Myanmar expert on diplomatic and economic relations with China, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said Beijing had been interested in the deep-sea port project before the coup, but that now it was unwilling to take the risk because of Myanmar’s instability.

“Almost all foreign investors have left the country. Only China and other neighbouring countries might come in. The legitimacy of the military council is not recognised internationally or domestically. When martial law is declared in many places and there is no stability, investors will not seriously consider entering,” the expert said.

“China is business-minded. Rather than start a new venture with large amounts of money, they would prefer to maintain their ongoing projects.”

However, a lack of real investment is no barrier to land grabs, since land grabbed under one pretext can easily be used for other purposes when few laws are being enforced.

In Mudon, junta authorities in Mon have designated 4,660 acres of land around Kawparan village for the airport, and 360 acres between Balauk Nyaungwaing and Wekali villages for the port terminal. Than Lwin Times reported last December that K27 billion in compensation would be paid over three months.

But local residents and civil society activists told Frontier that so far no one had received compensation, and that because of a lack of information some villagers were selling their land to brokers and others at a low price.

“No one trusts the military council, which does what it wants and doesn’t care about the law or human rights. People are worried they won’t get any compensation from the regime’s land grabs,” said a villager in Mudon.

Nai Aue Mon, programme director of the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, told Frontier that businesspeople close to the military were buying land through brokers at low prices by spreading fear among villagers about possible illegal land seizures.

“Since June last year, the cronies started to buy lands here and have already got about 1,000 acres. The market price was about 100 lakhs [K10 million], but the farmers sold their land for around 15 to 20 lakhs,” he said.

Some officials have been seen measuring land but otherwise no works have started, a Kawparan villager said.

The farmers’ fears are understandable given the military’s history in Mon. No compensation was paid for land seized on Kalargote island, in Ye Township, for a naval base in 2001.

Frontier could not confirm any cases where compensation had been paid, but the Mon Unity Party, which is allied to the regime and has welcomed its projects, said compensation started in March in some villages.

“People received from 60 to 70 lakhs [K6-7 million] per acre and the value of crops for three years. So, people are satisfied with the [junta’s] compensation plans,” said Nai San Tin, MUP general secretary.

But he could not provide further details about where and to whom compensation had actually been paid.

Aue Mon said political parties allied with the military were lobbying for the projects, spreading fake information and threatening to seize land from villagers.

“The MUP is also getting involved in buying land at low prices. It’s disgusting that they are making a profit from honest villagers while people can barely make ends meet,” he said.

The party denied it was involved in the projects.

Aue Mon said the people risked losing all their land to the junta and its cronies if military rule continued for many more years.

“In the past we have seen how peoples’ lives were destroyed after their land was seized. If the military keeps on doing this, our Mon youth will end up as menial workers in Thailand. They will go from being landowners to slaves in another country.”

*denotes use of a pseudonym for security reasons

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar