Naw Bway Paw looks out from the door of her windowless bamboo home in Hlaing Bwe Township, Karen State, and remembers the day in 1996 when Burma’s army came and took her land. In an interview with Karen News, Naw Bway described how she lost both her ancestral home and land.
“One day a soldier arrived at my home in Lay Kaw Hti village and asked to stay until the rainy season was finished. It was a Battalion Commander called Saw Win and he lived with us for almost a year. Then he told us that we have to leave…that we have to live outside our land. They told us that we were not allowed to stay in their battalion area, so they forced us to leave,” she said.
Naw Bway said that Commander Saw Win ordered her to sign a paper confirming that the land was legally not hers, but she refused to sign despite the presence of armed soldiers.
Naw Bway recounted what happened to Karen News: “The commander said, ‘Now the land is owned by the state, so you all have to leave. You can’t live here. It’s all controlled by the state.’ I argued with him and said that we had farmed this land for generations, but he said ‘Now you argue with me? I am a soldier. I have a gun and I can do anything to you!’”
Although Naw Bway and other villagers left the area they all refused to sign away their land. “I couldn’t sign it. I would rather just leave. Nobody in the village signed,” she said, adding that without farmland every day she struggles just to survive.
Under the previous military regime, Burma’s army confiscated thousands of acres of land, using it to grow crops and build military camps. Then in 2012, Thein Sein’s “reformist” government established a “Land Acquisition Investigation Commission” to handle the thousands of outstanding land confiscation claims, and within months the commission received over 2,000 claims. Yet former landowners claim the commission is toothless because it has no decision-making powers.
Moreover ,NGO’s have warned that reports of land confiscation are on the rise despite Burma’s transition to a “civilian” government. A report released by Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) in May called “Truce or Transition? Trends in Human Rights Abuses and Local Response in Southeast Myanmar since the 2012 Ceasefire,” noted that reports of land-grabbing in southeastern Burma increased following the signing of a ceasefire between the Karen National Union (KNU) and Burma’s army in January 2012. The KHRG report provides evidence that land confiscated by the Burma Army hasn’t been returned, and that new lands have been seized— without consulting the landowners—on account of being classified by the government as “uncultivated” or state-owned under Burma’s land law regime.
“Since the ceasefire, villagers have begun to report increasingly about land confiscation for mining, logging, dams, infrastructure development and commercial agriculture. Land is confiscated by armed actors or the Myanmar government in collaboration with companies for those projects,” the report said.
In a prior interview with Karen News, KHRG Field Director Saw Albert Moo stated that despite the cessation of conflict, the lives of many villagers hasn’t improved significantly. “The life of villagers impacted by the conflict has stayed the same as it was in the past. Their livelihood options; their living conditions; and ongoing militarization (i.e. living in the shadow of heavily-armed camps and increasing numbers of government soldiers) is still very difficult. Some villagers who been displaced for a long time still cannot return to their villages,” Saw Albert said.
Saw Albert added, “Because of land confiscation, tens of thousands of villagers have been displaced and communities face increasing water contamination and damage to land because of development projects [such as the Toh Boh Dam in Toungoo District].”
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has also warned of a “frenzy” of land confiscation perpetrated by the government or government-linked companies. “Reports of the number of cases and scale of land confiscation…continue to grow,” the AHRC said in a statement last month.
The AHRC statement continued: “At the same time, conflicts over land have escalated as farmers attempt to regain land taken from them in earlier years…A consistent feature across these reports is the role that the courts and police have played in support of cronies and military interests.”
Meanwhile, Naw Bway recounts the next chapter of her heart-wrenching story to Karen News as she strokes her hand across lush-green fields under the shadow of Ta Nay Chah (Nabu) Mountain. “This was my land. We used to grow beans, cucumbers, and tobacco. We could sell and trade them for everything…Now I have no land. My current house is like a chicken coop. All I can do now is survive. I am so sad,” she lamented.
Naw Bway hopes that one day her land will be returned to her, telling Karen News that “I wish that one day I will get my land back. When I look at my land today I know exactly where everything is—I planted those coconut trees over there, and I planted those mangoes there. And here is where I planted the dogfruit… I remember it all. But every year I see the Burmese army come and take all of the fruit from those trees—my trees. They take everything.”
Naw Bway’s future—without means to earn income or grow food—is uncertain. Speaking with a tone of both nostalgia and fear, she said: “This farm belonged to my great-grandparents, it was passed on to each generation. I thought that I would give this farm to my children, but now we can’t depend on that. The older I get the more difficult life will become. What am I going to do?”
|< Prev||Next >|