Military tree ‘tax’ irks Mon State rubber farmers

A global slump in rubber prices has worsened the plight of smallholder farmers in Mon State who are ‘taxed’ by the military to use land they say is their own.

By JOSHUA CARROLL | FRONTIER

Seventy-four-year-old Daw Ngwe Pin might not look threatening but she doesn’t take kindly to being bullied. Her silver-black hair tied in a tight bun, she makes vigorous hand gestures as she recalls how the military has been extorting her for more than a decade.

Daw Ngwe Pin says that since 2000, she and 16 other rubber farmers in Mon State’s Ye Township have been forced to pay “taxes” to a nearby military base to use land it seized from them around the facility.

Daw Ngwe Pin says the levy is an injustice and has been railing against it since it was imposed. She’s become a leader on the issue for her neighbours who are too scared to defy the Tatmadaw. “I’m not afraid of them,” she said. “I’m the landowner!”

Light Infantry Battalion 586 finished building the base in 2000 but the farmers say they were never told in advance their land had been appropriated. They realised it had been taken when soldiers began planting flags to delineate the boundary of the confiscated land.

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The farmers said that rather than being evicted, the base commander told them they could continue tapping rubber if they paid an annual tax of up to K1,500 a tree. Many of the farmers have thousands of trees and the levy they’ve been forced to pay has totalled tens of thousands of dollars over the years.

“Last year I had to pay the military 1.5 million kyat,” said Daw Ngwe Pin. After deducting other expenses, her annual profit from the farm was K1 million (about US$778). “My husband died in 2000, so this is my only source of income,” she said.

Activist Nai Sawoor Mon, who wears a T-shirt that says “I love human rights,” has been championing Daw Ngwe Pin’s cause for years as part of his work with the Human Rights Foundation of Monland.

Sitting among Mon journalist friends at the Hinthar Media office in the state capital, Mawlamyine, he grabbed a pen and sketched a crude map to illustrate the scale of land-grabbing in the area.

“After the Mon National Liberation Army signed a ceasefire in 1995, the army started building bases,” said Nai Sawoor Mon, as he drew two long lines representing the highway running south from Mawlamyine towards Daw Ngwe Pin’s rubber plantation at Ye.

Then he scribbled little boxes along the road to denote the bases and drew big circles around them. “They didn’t just take the land they needed for the base, they took all the land around it too,” he said.

Tackling land grabs will be a major challenge because of likely opposition from the military and the dysfunctional state of the nation’s courts. Many farmers cultivate land that has been used by their family for generations but lack the documents to prove it.

Between 2000 and 2010, the Human Rights Foundation for Monland says it recorded the seizure of more than 12,000 acres along the 140 kilometres (87 miles) of highway between Mawlamyine and Ye. It is a graphic example of the military’s role in the voracious land grabbing that has taken place throughout Myanmar for decades. Land for growing rubber is among the most coveted because of the high demand for the commodity in China.

Rubber plantations account for over a quarter of the more than five million acres leased to cronies and other investors without the landowners’ consent in the last 10 years, natural resources watchdog Global Witness said in a March 2015 report.

“Military, political and business cronies [have] conspired to confiscate land from ethnic minority villagers in order to establish commercial rubber plantations,” the report said.

Daw Ngwe Pin and her neighbours are arguably more fortunate than other farmers who have been evicted from their land to make way for big commercial plantations.

In the past few years, new areas have been increasingly targeted in Mon State and elsewhere for commercial plantations near smallholders’ rubber farms, reducing their access to land and natural resources, Global Witness said in an earlier report in March 2014.

Mon State is the country’s main rubber producing region, helping to make Myanmar the world’s ninth largest producer of the commodity. But in recent years global prices have plummeted, compounding the woes of growers already being squeezed by the military and commercial plantations.

In 2011, when rubber fetched about $2.80 a pound on the global market, Daw Ngwe Pin had to go to the base near her farm and hand a captain K6 million in three separate instalments. Prices have since slumped to about 56 cents. To avoid financial difficulties, she has had to negotiate constantly with the military for a lower levy.

The military was stubborn, so she started lobbying politicians. When Mon State Chief Minister U Ohn Myint attended a meeting near her village, Daw Ngwe Pin and her neighbours confronted him about their plight. He promised to help.

In 2013, emboldened by political reforms and reports of seized land being returned elsewhere in the country, the farmers took a collective stand and refused to pay. Instead, they lodged a complaint with the parliamentary farmland investigation commission and the battalion commander’s superiors.

Nai Sawoor Mon and his group supported the campaign and helped to generate media interest in the farmers’ situation. The military, perhaps keen to deflect the media attention, granted the farmers a partial victory and slashed the tree tax. The farmers now pay an annual levy of K350 a tree.

Daw Ngwe Pin is hopeful that after a National League for Democracy government comes to power, she will not have to pay the military anything. Late last year the NLD’s central committee for farmers’ affairs instructed party offices in each state and region to compile lists of land disputes.

The move has raised hopes that untangling the complex and emotive issue of land grabbing will be among the NLD’s top priorities in office, along with supporting the peace process and freeing political prisoners.

Tackling land grabs will be a major challenge because of likely opposition from the military and the dysfunctional state of the nation’s courts. Many farmers cultivate land that has been used by their family for generations but lack the documents to prove it. The victims of seizures will need considerable assistance when they launch action to reclaim their land.

Few are as fortunate as Daw Ngwe Pin, who is well-educated and a friend of outgoing Pyithu Hluttaw MP, Daw Mi Myint Than, a land rights activist who represented Ye for the All Mon Region Democratic Party and was a member of the farmland investigation commission.

“If I have a breakthrough it helps the other 16 people living near the base,” said Daw Ngwe Pin. “Mi Myint Than encourages me not to be afraid,” she said.

By Joshua Carroll

By Joshua Carroll

Joshua Carroll is a journalist based in Yangon. He reports on human rights, politics and development.
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