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Biting the hand that feeds the nation

Pascal Khoo-Thwe
Mar 2, 2009 (DVB), As Peasants' Day is marked in Burma on 2 March, the plight of farmers in the country remains desperate.

Farmers or ‘peasants’, including tribesmen, are one of the most abused, exploited and overlooked social denomination in Burma , and they are often taken for granted not only by the ruling elites but also by the opposition groups.

Yet they make up the majority of the population, and the ruling elites are mostly of peasant stock.

Whenever there is political instability or power struggles among the ruling elites, rural areas are where they always go to rally for support. Villagers are forced to join willy-nilly at their own risk and irrespective of the outcomes.

After the coup in September 1988, preceded by the nationwide uprising, students and activists fled into the jungles to avoid arrests. Villagers gave us shelters, fed us and guided us through the dangerous jungles, feared by us so-called educated people. But as soon as we were out of danger, it was the villagers who bore the brunt of the wrath of the army, and their villages were burnt down, crops destroyed, and they themselves were imprisoned, tortured or even killed.

During the parliamentary democracy period from 1948 to 1962, many farmers were recruited as cannon fodder for various factions of the rebels fighting U Nu’s government, which also recruited villagers. When asked by U Nu why so many farmers had joined the Burma Communist Party, someone reportedly replied that had the prime minister looked after the farmers better, there would not be much support for the communists.

The late dictator General Ne Win exploited the weakness of U Nu by enticing farmers with favours and actively promoting the myth of noble peasants on the one hand and meting out brutality towards those who opposed his myth with the other. As a result, the communists were driven out of their strongholds in central Burma, but sympathy for the communists never went away, even though most of them do not believe in Communism. Once he achieved his aim of gaining absolute power, Ne Win treated the farmers with same disdain as his predecessors and ignored their plight.

The situation was no better for farmers during the colonial period either. When ex-monk Saya San led farmers , mostly armed with amulets, spears and agricultural tools , against their foreign masters during the 1930s, the British ruthlessly crushed the rebellion with a campaign that treated the farmers no better than dacoits. They were imprisoned, hung and shot. The rebellion was said to be caused by money lending Chettiars from India who monopolised the rice market and sucked the blood of farmers dry with high interest rates, which was also exacerbated by the Great Depression.

But many, including those who lived under colonial rule, argue that the situation for present-day farmers is worse than that under the British. They are certainly not wrong, if not completely right. In place of Chettiars are now companies owned by the army and relatives and cronies of the generals, who are using all available means and tricks to bleed the farmers dry. Farmers are eking out a life no better than that of slaves as their best farms, crops, communal pastures and jungles are confiscated by the army, and they are commandeered into forced labour for ‘government projects’. And their children are still forcibly recruited into the army.

Their remaining children cannot afford to go to school, and some of them have sold their ancestral farmlands to look for jobs in cities and neighbouring countries, or to join the rebels. When the guardians of Burmese rural life are forced to leave their homes due to the impacts of globalisation and greed, their old communities are left derelict and lifeless.

But it is hard to imagine the rise of a new Saya San in the near future for farmers as it is harder to fight your own flesh and blood than foreign ‘bloodsuckers’. It will take more than Seven Samurais to get rid of the cancerous climate of fear and its agents in Burma, as the military itself is merely an agent of powerful neighbouring countries which only are mainly interested in getting cheap natural resources from Burma.

At the same time, farmers and the children of farmers who became soldiers, doctors, engineers and the like must change or at least improve our ways of thinking and modus operandi if we are to retain a hint of our traditions and identity. Burma is like a burning house and we can’t save everything. What makes it worse is, most of us affected have been playing the crying and blaming game while the house burns.

Then again, in the past no one dared to think that peasants in China could defeat the mighty Chiang Kai Sheik government or that the mighty Shah of Iran could be overthrown by a religious figure. Look at the works of history and find in them hope or despair. But I do doubt if the majority of farmers would benefit from a successful revolution , which is one of the reasons why the farmers themselves are very reluctant to rebel against a government armed to the teeth. In any case, the farmers have too many things to do on the farms to survive and the best policy for any sensible government would be to leave them alone and let them do their jobs in peace. But will they? Paddy fields, jungles and villages have been the battlegrounds of greed and hatred for more than half a century in Burma and there is no sign that it will stop to be so.

Meanwhile, whether there is a government-appointed Peasants’ Day in Burma or not , which incidentally is marked on the same day that Ne Win staged the military coup in 1962 , the role of the farmers is still being overlooked by all those involved who are wasting their time on theoretical matters which lead us nowhere and not taking action.

It’s also time to think carefully whether it is successive constitutions and elections that have been feeding Burma every day or the ‘peasants’ and other hardworking people, and to look for more pragmatic strategies to help the country.

But one thing is certain , farmers will be the true inheritors of the earth for bad or for worse, as we will still have to eat the food they grow and the animals they feed.