Tue, Dec 16, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Myanmar’s landless: playthings of the powerful

The end of most Western sanctions are fueling a scramble for territory in the resource-rich nation

By Hla HLA Htay  /  AFP, NEW THAMEELAY, Myanmar

A woman walks past a house donated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, at the Thameelay new housing ward on the outskirts of Yangon in June.

Photo: AFP

Left destitute after the army said they were squatting, hundreds of families have found themselves caught in a bizarre tug of war involving Myanmar’s ruling party and an armed ethnic group in a case that highlights the country’s acute land challenges.

When military officials with loudhailers told Aye Aye Win and her neighbors that their village near the central Bago mountains was about to be razed, the bulldozers were already at their doors.

“We were so frightened,” she told AFP, choking back tears as she recounted the day in March when the army declared the village of Thameelay illegal.

Land is among the most contentious issues in Myanmar as reforms and the end of most Western sanctions fuel a scramble for territory in the resource-rich nation.

The problem is widespread in the country, where the state legally owns all land and the army stands accused of rampant land grabbing.

A commission set up to deal with disputes has struggled to resolve even a small fraction of the tens of thousands of complaints that have flooded in.

Homeless and helpless, Aye Aye Win and over a thousand others from a cluster of 10 local hamlets soon found themselves buffeted between some of Myanmar’s most powerful forces — from the military to the clergy, political heavyweights and armed ethnic groups.

In the face of bureaucratic inertia, aggrieved ordinary people across the nation are taking matters into their own hands.

Farmers barge through barricades to plough their former fields, displaced villagers confront businessmen and placard-wielding protesters flock to towns and cities in rallies that flare across the country on a weekly basis.

Hundreds of protesters have been arrested this year alone.

But Aye Aye Win and her neighbors were afraid.

“They told us they would take legal action against us if we complained,” said the 52-year-old as she sat surrounded by her extended family and a few salvaged possessions in her new home — a one room bamboo hut in a field on the fringes of Yangon.

JUNGLE ORDEAL

Many from Thameelay ended up in a monastery in the remote Bago countryside. But they could not stay long.

Authorities again demanded they move on and it was then, as their plight filtered into national news, that two unlikely organizations stepped in to offer help — the military-backed ruling party and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Association (DKBA) armed group.

The DKBA, former rebels in eastern Karen State who struck a deal to join forces with the previous-junta government, appeared eager to show their magnanimity.

They arrived in 12-wheeler trucks brandishing promises of lush land plots in the insurgency-wracked jungles near the Thai border.

Some 200 families took them up on the offer.

Villager Than Htwe told AFP that life with the fighters, who have never released a motive for their uncharacteristic act, was not quite as advertised.

After a grueling four-day journey to the frontier region, the villagers were met with suspicion and restrictions.

“We were basically locked up as soon as we arrived,” said Than Htwe, 42.

His family of three decided to cut their losses and return to central Myanmar where relatives, including Aye Aye Win, had chosen to throw their lot in with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

The USDP, the well-funded vehicle for Myanmar’s former generals to relaunch themselves as civilian politicians, had bought 12 acres of barren farmland for around US$200,000 and created new Thameelay village from the scrub along the lonely highway north of the commercial hub Yangon.

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