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Myanmar still fighting for land rights

Homes seized during military rule have yet to be returned, say residents

Myanmar still fighting for land rights

U Sein Than points to photos of a demonstration by former Michaungkan village residents who were evicted by the military in the 1990s reporter, Yangon

February 3, 2014

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“If you don’t speak up, you will die,” reads a sign above the door to U Sein Than’s house. The 55-year-old has converted his small home into the makeshift headquarters of a highly organized movement, involving about 500 people, to win justice for the taking of their land which was forcibly confiscated by Myanmar’s military.

U Sein Than was first arrested in 1991, when he tried to organize resistance against the eviction of 1,222 families from Michaungkan village, in eastern Yangon’s Thingangyun Township.

“I tried to agitate the people. I told them: ‘This is our own land. This is our ancestor’s land,’” he said.

More than two decades later, U Sein Than is still fighting for the land he lost. Emboldened by political reforms that have seen some loosening of the rules around public demonstrations, the Michaungkan protesters are among a growing movement against land grabs by Myanmar’s former military rulers.

Now living in Ward 56 of South Dagon township, a semi-rural tract on the eastern outskirts of the city, U Sein Than shuffles through photocopies that testify to ownership of his land, and his fight to win it back. One document, bearing a stamp of the face of the UK’s King George V, records the tax paid to the colonial administration on the half-acre plot — including toddy palms and a wooden house — by his forebears. The document dates from 1919.

In the early 1990s, residents of Michaungkan were moved — without compensation — and forced to buy new plots of land elsewhere. Some were sent to South Dagon, one of the government’s so-called “satellite towns” that in reality were muddy backwaters with no paved roads, power, schools or places of worship. Others were sent further, to Bago Division, where many caught malaria, according to U Sein Than. “Whole families died after that,” he said.

The military justified the evictions, saying the land was needed by the state. Today, much of the 40.4 hectares or so is still ragged scrubland, dotted with signs with the words: “Army land. Do not enter.” The vacant land is likely worth a significant sum of money, sitting on a busy thoroughfare in a city undergoing a development boom that has seen land prices skyrocket since reforms started.

U Sein Than believes the evictions were an act of spite against a working-class neighborhood that was sympathetic to the country’s democracy movement. “They hated us, so they broke us apart,” he said.

In 1988, Myanmar erupted in a massive popular uprising that succeeded in toppling the one-party rule of General Ne Win, but was crushed after an internal coup by a group of arguably more brutal dictators under the guise of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC.

Michaungkan spawned some of the leaders of the democracy movement, and is among a number of similarly anti-military neighborhoods depopulated in the crackdown that followed the revolt.

“I was raised on this land,” recalls Moe Thee Zun, a long-term political activist. “I grew up in Michaungkan and a lot of my neighbors participated in the 1988 movement. The government punished our neighborhood because they actively participated.”

Now aged 51, Moe Thee Zun recently returned to Myanmar after years spent fighting the junta as a leader of a student army on the Myanmar-Thailand border and later studying in the United States. An organizer of the 1988 movement, Moe Thee Zun fled Yangon as a massive wave of arrests crushed the protests.

“I was in the jungles when they kicked my family out,” he said.

Moe Thee Zun said his family lost their businesses — a small grocery store and a market stall — and were pressured to buy overpriced land in South Dagon from the government. 

These days, South Dagon has some paved roads — although most are riddled with potholes — and has become a community of its own, with traces of the government distrust from Michaungkan and other neighborhoods forcibly moved here.

In early 2012, former Michaungkan residents began demonstrating for the land to be returned to them or fair compensation.

Charges were soon brought against U Sein Than and other protest leaders under the controversial Peaceful Assembly Law, which prohibits public gatherings without the prior permission of the authorities. He has been jailed twice since then. His most recent release from Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison was in December as part of one of the presidential amnesties that has enabled the government to boast that there are no more political prisoners in Myanmar. 

Nonetheless, the Michaungkan protesters have escalated their efforts, in November setting up a camp on the site of their former neighborhood. They withstood an attack by alleged military-hired goons armed with sticks — in which 10 women, some elderly, were injured.

No perpetrators were caught, but authorities charged 25 protesters with articles of law not covered by a blanket amnesty granted for the New Year — for disturbing the authorities’ activities and invading military land.

When the city authorities gave the villagers an ultimatum — leave or we’ll make you — they stayed put.  The authorities blinked first, and the demonstrators only packed up after 17 days thanks to a guarantee from a sympathetic ruling party lawmaker that parliament would investigate.

However, there is still no solution, and the Defense Ministry has said it has no plans to return the land since it is now slated to finally be developed — into homes for army veterans.

Ko Zarni, a public relations officer for the Movement for Democracy Current Forces, a civil society organization, said the Michaungkan case is far from unique. The military controls some 68,800 hectares of seized land nationwide, he said. Many more hectares have been handed over to businessmen with links to the government.

A parliamentary committee set up to resolve land disputes has been accused of overstating the progress that’s being made.

“The army has admitted taking the land. The reality is different. So that’s why the people don’t believe the government,” said Ko Zarni, adding that promises to return land to its rightful owners had been made.

Protests by the landless and desperate are growing. In January, about 500 farmers from across the country gathered in Yangon to bring attention to land seizures and the arbitrary use of criminal charges to silence those who ask for it back. And, in September last year, farmers in the capital Naypyidaw temporarily detained police who tried to stop them from working on farmland occupied by the Ministry of Information.

U Sein Than said there are many others like him dispossessed of land who will not be silenced.  And given about 70 percent of the population are still rural farmers, there could be a “land revolution” coming to Myanmar, he said.

With no solution in sight, the Michaungkan villagers are now stockpiling food and supplies to establish another protest camp in March. This time, they plan to set up outside Yangon’s City Hall.

“We will fight until we die,” said U Sein Than.

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