HURFOM--In recent months Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) has been tracking various cases of land confiscation, some of which took place years ago but have only now come to light. So far, published documentation has focussed on confiscations perpetrated by the Burmese military, local authorities and private companies working on government projects. However, field reporters have noted that numerous ethnic armed groups have also been involved in land seizures in Mon areas. Residents have accused ethnic armed groups of taking advantage of the on-going peace process to further their own interests, with the government giving groups involved in 2012 ceasefires the authority to take land from residents.
Today HURFOM reports on one particular series of land confiscations, carried out in the area of Kha Yon Guu in Mon State’s Kyiakmayaw Township.
Land confiscations in Kha Yon Guu
Reports from Kha Yone Gu concern the activities of a small Mon armed group, known both as the Mon Peace Group and the Nai Shoung group. Recently they are alleged to have imported illegal weapons, appeasing military forces by selling arms to the South Eastern Command. As a result, last year, having built good relations with the Burmese military, they sought permission to deploy troops to the Kha Yone Gu area. Their request was granted and troops were deployed to the central bus-stop area of Kha Yone Gu, led by Maj. Nai Bying.
Land confiscations began immediately. Nai Bying, who also holds a government appointed position of authority in the region, seized land from Kha Yone Gu residents to secure it for the troop’s use. The armed group are reported to have consulted the Kyaikmayaw Township Land Records Department to find the most suitable pieces of land. Farms were taken from residents of various villages, who reportedly possessed the paperwork to prove their ownership of the land. When landowners tried to resist seizures, showing this paperwork to armed group forces, they were threatened at gunpoint and intimidated into handing over their plantations. The confiscated land was fenced off and the group put up their flag to mark the territory as their own.
With land in Kha Yone Gu coming at an increasingly high value, residents allege economic motives behind the confiscations. The land seized is situated on a major road leading from Mawlamyine to Pa-an and Myawaddy, at an intersection where another road branches off towards Yamawaddy (via Min Ywa and Kaw Bein villages). Kha Yone Gu is a major rest point for buses and travellers journeying towards these locations, with many small shops set up to cater to this growing market. Taking advantage of the desirable roadside location of the land seized, the armed group reportedly divided some of it, which was not being used to house troops, into plots. These were then sold off to villagers seeking to build shops or housing in this prime spot.
Despite the value of their land, landowners received only a small compensation, given to them in response to complaints lodged after the event. One resident, Nai Marana, said that although landowners were not satisfied with the fee they felt intimidated into accepting it. In this way, they lost out on land that is likely to continue to increase in value. “The place is crowded with travellers visiting the Kha Yone Gu pagoda and buses stopping here”, said current landowner Ko Tun Aye. “More and more buses are stopping and gathering in this one place, it will be more crowded next year. In the next two or three years this place will become filled with houses and shops. I won’t sell my farm unless I get a high price.”
Daw Zwe’s case
Siblings Daw Zwe, Daw Ngew Sain and Daw Pya, all over 6o years old, lost 15 acres of valuable land, located next to the bus station and the armed group’s barracks. According to one local farmer, “They [the armed group] know these lands will have high prices one day, so now they want to own these lands. Daw Zwe’s land is in a prime location for creating land for shops and houses.”
The land owned by Daw Zwe and her siblings had been passed down in their family from generation to generation, and at the time of confiscation was filled with healthy crops. According to Daw Zwe, “The land was cultivated with many kinds of rice by our ancestors. Our parents worked on it after their parents. Then they passed it on me and my siblings.”
Ownership documents confirm that the land had been in the family for 100 years, since before the Zar Ta Pyin bridge was built and the area’s narrow road became a major route. The family farmed the land every year, paying taxes to the government Land Records department in Kyiakmayaw city where their land was registered.
After their land was taken, and when Daw Zwe’s family heard of the armed group’s plans to sell it off for profit, they visited other villagers to warn them about the consequences of purchasing it. Daw Zwe’s daughter told HURFOM, “They [the Mon Peace group] measured our land and planned to it sell to other people. People wanted to buy our land. We said to them: Maj. Nai Bying has taken our land and tried to it sell to you, but remember that if Bying leaves we will take our land back.”
The family’s show of resistance to the confiscation resulted in threats from the Mon Peace Process group. Daw Zwe’s daughter continued, “I work in Thailand and only my mother lives at home. Before she built a hut and lived on the land which she loves…But the armed group threatened my mother, saying that they would kill her and feed her body to the fish in the lake. Now my mother doesn’t dare to go to her land. She is scared and lives at home. I returned home [from Thailand] because I worry about her.”
Daw Zwe confirmed that she had been threatened by Maj. Bying, although she was afraid to give more specific details, “ I dare not to talk about what Maj. Bying said because I am scared of them [the Mon Peace group] and worry that they will kill me.”
Despite this intimidation, on 12 March, 2013 Daw Zwe submitted a letter to the Mon State parliament, South Eastern command, government border security forces, and other military and government departments. A member of the Mon State parliament who supported Daw Zwe in this appeal told HURFOM, “We already submitted an appeal to parliament. Daw Zwe wants her land back because her family have worked on the land for generations. In the letter we included a complaint that Daw Zwe and her brother became unable to enter their land when the armed group closed the gate at its entrance. They [the Mon Peace Process group] have threatened Daw Zwe. We will also submit this letter to the Land Record department, as the issue fits their area of concern.”
This letter is reported to have elicited a hostile response from Maj. Bying, who Daw Zwe claims visited her, saying, “Why did you submit a letter? We did not take any of your land, old lady.”
The legal argument behind Kha Yone Gu confiscations
Daw Zwe’s appeal has yielded some new information about the Kha Yone Gu land confiscations, uncovering the legal argument used to justify the Mon Peace Process Group’s actions. It appears that the land was taken by the group under authority granted by the Burmese government. Daw Zwe and her daughter said, “Mi Yin Chan, a member of parliament of Kyiakmayaw Township and a land survey administrator, checked out the case and said that the [Burmese] authorities gave this group the authority to take the land.”
One resident gave his opinion that the government granted the authority to turn Kha Yone Gu’s Mon residents against this Mon armed group, “It is a kind of strategy of the government in its military policy to create conflict within ethnic groups. So the government creates opportunities for armed groups to carry out such activities.”
A land survey administrator in Kyiakmayaw township elaborated that the land was seized under a law designating land 18 yards either side of the Kha Yone Gu road as public property.
Yet it is of note that residents were unaware of this law and remain unsure about whether it is indeed the case. Whilst Daw Zwe and her family tried to ask the land survey administrator more about this, he could not answer their queries.
Even if the law does hold, Kha Yone Gu residents do not accept the legal argument given. First, they claim that the years of work put into the land by their families mean that, regardless of its proximity to the road, they are entitled to it. Many cite grandparents who worked on the land even before the road was built.
Second, they allege that the Mon Peace Process group do not have the authority to enforce this law. Daw Zwe claims, “We would be content if the government took the 18 yards of land around the main road, but it is only Maj. Bying who took the land and we do not want to give it to him.”
Finally, and most damaging to the legal argument, several farms seized, including Daw Zwe’s, lie outside the 18 yard region. Maj. Bying has been accused of taking advantage of the fact that during confiscations landowners were unaware of the legal justification being used, and accordingly did not challenge the group on this point.
With all this in mind, residents continue to fight for their land. Daw Zwe concluded her testimony, “In my opinion, even though we are scared of them [the Mon Peace group] we want justice on this issue.”