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The 60 landless farmers who protested in Rangoon last week before being quickly dispersed by police provided an early acid test for the new civilian government’s commitment to reforms. Pho Phyu, a lawyer supporting farmers’ rights, who was among the seven subsequently arrested, said: “We have approached parliament for help but nothing happened, so we decided to take it to the streets”.
Even in totalitarian states, the time comes when past errors are admitted and high placed officials are called to account. In Burma there is a sedation of political understanding. There is no climate of enquiry which, while perhaps not giving immediate results, can at least reject lies and reinforce knowledge of unresolved public wrongs. Intellectuals take an avoidance strategy when talking up the impotent monotonous discourse of reconciliation, pleased that they are being finally asked to participate in the affairs of the state.
In an August workshop on rural development and poverty alleviation, President Thein Sein told attendees, among them “entrepreneurs, economic experts, high-ranking officials from ministries and representatives from various strata of life”, that Burma will be developed soon if people are united and work hard together, making good use of favourable conditions. Then on World Food Day in October, the state-run New Light of Myanmar celebrated the nation’s extensive sown paddy land, which it said not only supplies local food needs but produces surplus “contributing to fulfil food demand of the world”. Maize, beans, pulses, edible oils and kitchen crops fully supply local consumption needs and meat and fish sectors play a key role in food production of the state.
But in Burma, one in three children under the age of five are severely underweight, 11 percent suffer wasting, and 41 percent are stunted, reflecting severe nutritional deprivation. The official terms and slogans separate thought from reality: the official ideology encourages a collective deception, and the hypocrisy works because people are able and willing to live within the lie.
Any economic system can be imposed by law and by habit once the political machinery is entrenched. The 2008 constitution declares the state owner of all lands, all natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and in the atmosphere above the Union. Farmers have no legal right to own land. They are permitted to grow certain crops, but if they fail to plant, land is taken. The military and their civilian collaborators are entrenching a socio-economic mutuality in the “new government” that takes more land from farmers.
“Blessed with favourable weather and fertile soils, paddy and other crops are successfully thriving”, the New Light of Myanmar boasted on 23 October. Farmers must “strive for surplus production of crops” by applying modern technologies and planting quality rice strains, to ensure “agricultural businesses penetrate into the global market”.
Farmers with no individual rights are used by the state for the rulers’ benefit, a system of exploitation that has gradually expanded over the past decade. In 1999, the then-ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) granted large tracts of over 5,000 acres of “vacant, virgin, and fallow lands” for 30-year leases heavily subsidised in terms of credit, agricultural inputs, roads and communication links to organisations and private companies, among them the crony-run Asia World, Olympic, and Yuzana. By 2001, over one million acres were distributed among 100 enterprises. Individual farmers had no access to such benefits.
Since 2005 the state has encouraged investors from China, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Kuwait to invest in contract farms. In 2008, more than 100,000 acres of farmland in the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon division were given to local companies, Asia World, Htoo Trading, Max Myanmar, and Aye Ya Shwe Wa. The agriculture minister claimed that no land was seized for this contract farming because the state is the owner of all farmland. Now the government is revising its foreign investment law to allow land ownership by foreign investors, with legislation likely to be enacted by early next year.
In 2008, I and a colleague conducted research of 467 farm households of fourteen townships in six divisions and states in Burma whose farmland had been arbitrarily confiscated. Only six farmers (1.2 percent) were compensated far below the value of their farmland. Implications of uncompensated confiscation included dramatic income losses, inability to feed the family, and loss of village residency rights. Survival tactics forced people to work in urban factories, as casual farm labourers on their own land, and herders of buffaloes between villages. Land was confiscated for infrastructure development, private shrimp farm enterprises, personal use by the former junta’s so-called civil organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Organisation (USDA), police, and infantry battalion members.
The UN special rapporteur previously expressed concern over the role of the USDA, established in 1993, as a political party in last year’s elections. “Over the years, the [special rapporteur] has received allegations of USDA’s involvement in acts of political and criminal violence, the latest being the violent crackdown on demonstrators [in 2007] following the fuel crisis, as documented in his report to the 6th session of the HRC. The USDA may be used to legitimize a transition from a military regime to a civilian Government that could be not genuine”.
The USDA was officially abolished in 2010. General Than Shwe, principal USDA patron, approved the transfer of all its property to a new political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). On 29 April, Thein Sein, 26 ministers and senior officials formed the USDP, which was recognised immediately by the election commission. The regime consolidated its power by force; the business cronies entered parliament. Khin Shwe, a member of the USDP and owner of the Zaykabar Company, seized 830 acres of farmers’ land for his cement factory in September 2011.
The 2008 constitution structurally entrenches the military in the government by giving its members perpetual and disproportionate influence in the legislature and the ability to veto any constitutional amendments. The army-endorsed president has powers of appointment, and can remove superior judges. New high courts at the state and regional levels were established while the Supreme Court powers have expanded. The courts work effectively as agents of the “new government” to protect continued authoritarian rule.
The seizing of power and its excesses is taken as the natural condition in Burma, and reconciliation is seen by some as the way forward, rather than defiance of excessive power. If we start to account for all arbitrary power, all forms of dictatorship, as innately and potentially obscene, our language must communicate the illegitimacy in a forceful, uncompromising language of rejection, seeking to make it ridiculous and contemptible, and deflating its pretensions. Such language does not seek to dismantle the structure of power, which can only be a collective action, but these actions and language contribute to psychological resistance of public attitudes to forms of oppression.
The political will is paralysed by the aura of sanctity which, the longer it lasts, hypnotically exercises power over all. The cold reality is that power has to be endured. Even when it is culpable and seen to be so, it is effective because it cannot be avoided by constitutional agreements. All that is left to citizens is an attitude towards it, outwardly expressed or internalised. The only publicly accessible arenas of activities are media criticism and street demonstrations.
Forms of overt public activity occur after much prior preparation towards destroying the mystique and impregnability of the powerful. The farmers’ protest in Rangoon is an example of the struggle to break this mystique. The farmers refuse to live the lie.
The government should follow advice of Olivier de Schatter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who said last week that farmers must not become disempowered labourers on their own land. Failure to support farmers to live decently from farming is a key cause of hunger. Perhaps the hunger of children and farmers is not a concern for the “new government” in Burma.
Nancy Hudson-Rodd PhD, human geographer, former director of the Centre for Development Studies, honorary research fellow, Edith Cowan University, has conducted research in Burma for the past decade on the confiscation of farmers’ land by the military regime. She can be reached at [email protected]