MYITKYINA, Myanmar: In rural northern Myanmar, land is everything.
From the villagers who ply the fields, to the nation’s vast military, every inch of soil has its purpose for someone – a means to feed a family, make a fortune or weaken an enemy.
Yet in Kachin, there is little balance between the meagre and the mighty.
Over decades of civil conflict and military rule, the rights of farmers have withered away. Land grabbing was, and remains, rife and the state government’s Ministry of Agriculture has admitted it is nearly powerless to solve many of the resulting disputes.
Lakum Hkawng Nan was a young woman when she moved from the Kachin highlands to Naung Chain, outside Myitkyina. She remembers the day – New Year’s Eve of 1978.
“At that time, we just did hillside cultivation. We grew plants like rice, yams and sesame,” the 64-year-old said in her home in the dusty village.
But the land her family tended sat adjacent to an emerging rubber plantation and six years ago, she said, it was confiscated and sold to a tycoon businessman by a corrupt local administrator. She received no compensation and it is now being rented to a Chinese company.
“We only do farming so we didn’t have any income. We had a lack of food supplies. We had to rent cows and buffaloes because we didn’t own any. We struggled a lot,” she said.
Lakum Hkawng Nan had her family's land confiscated six years ago.
Her neighbours tell similar stories of land confiscation and a feeling of helplessness in the wake of more powerful forces.
“We are just small people,” said Sengneng Ja Ngai. “What can we do about it?”
“At that time, we didn’t know what to do and couldn’t say anything,” Lakum Hkawng Nan added. “So, we just knew to pray. We cried a lot. We prayed to God to give our lands back one day.”
That day has not come.
Chinese-backed plantations for rubber and bananas are well established across the landscape near Naung Chain. That has not resulted in any influx of local jobs, however.
Most of the workers have migrated here from other states; locals say the hours are long, the pay is low and they prefer not to be tied to labouring for Chinese bosses.
In fact, Chinese land acquisition and control is a point of concern for not just farmers, but the state government as well. There are no exact figures for how much farmland is currently being used by Chinese businesses, but it is estimated by observer groups to be thousands of acres, where mainland workers are hired and produce is sent across the border to be sold.
At a time where international investment is being fostered, true regulation remains scarce.
“We are investigating the farmlands confiscated or grabbed,” said Kachin’s Minister for Agriculture Mya Thein, a member of the newly installed National League for Democracy (NLD).
“There are a lot of Chinese companies that come and request to do plantations legally,” he said, noting that his government does not have the constitutional power to dictate who is allowed to start plantations.
“But we haven’t finished investigating the selling of land secretly to Chinese companies by lower-rank officials.”
Those officials he refers to are military officers acting with impunity in the state. Indeed, the heart of the problem in Kachin remains internal.
Many of the workers on the plantations have migrated from other parts of Myanmar.
Agriculture is Myanmar’s main industry. It employs some two-thirds of the entire country’s workforce, making land use integral to the fabric of the nation.
In Kachin, ethnic minority rights – intrinsically linked to land use – are central to the ongoing conflict. Yet, despite the installation of the democratically elected NLD government, which promised to overhaul and regulate the issue and prevent future land grabs, little has changed.
According to rights group, Land in Our Hands, Kachin has the second-largest number of land acquisitions in Myanmar, after Shan. In 2015, Global Witness reported widespread seizure of public assets and natural resources by the military, who in turn were alleged to have colluded with favourable business partners to maintain influence and income over large swathes of Shan, even once power was relinquished to the NLD-led government.
The issue is far from isolated to one region.
“What we’ve seen in Myanmar’s land sector is a transition from military rule to a form of gangster capitalism. In many cases the army has merely swapped its uniforms for suits, with military officials and their cronies retaining firm control of the country’s land sector,” said Global Witness land campaigner Josie Cohen.
There are no official figures about how much land has been confiscated in Kachin.
Mya Thein admits his government, at the moment, can do little to reverse the land grabs of the past by the military. Equally, it has little oversight over heavy military activity as war rages on in parts of Kachin.
“We have power. But it’s difficult in reality,” he said. “For example, when the military has confiscated and they don’t want to give back the land, they say they have already given it. Then we face difficulties.
“If we asked those generals to move, what would happen? The constitution is the constitution. Practice is practice.”
Land in Myanmar is owned by the government with farmers given usage titles. Legal documentation for that ownership though is inconsistent, sometimes confusing and often ignored, exacerbating farmers’ helplessness when the land is confiscated.
The Farmers Development Network is one group trying to arm farmers with awareness and legal knowledge to prevent them being forced out.
“In some places the famers have a lack of proper documentation and they couldn’t get it officially in the past. Those people are quite worried at this time,” said member Lahpai Zai.
“The businessmen buy from the farmers like 100 or 200 acres. That’s not the problem. But they take 1,000 acres in those areas. The farmers have a lack of documentation and then they measure the land as if nobody occupies it,” he explained.
But the fight is not totally one-sided as farmers look to the legal system to protect them.
Lobang Tang Gun was arrested and imprisoned for eight months for squatting and damaging a property seized by a company – he said it was land his community had been farming for years and claims a strongman hired by the company pressured residents to relent.
“(The man’s) purpose was to put all of us in the prison. He threatened to take the land,” the 42-year-old said. “Almost all the villagers are widows so I stood up for everyone. I talked to every officer. That’s why they put me in the prison.”
He eventually was released with charges dropped and his land was returned when he counter-sued. It was a victory, but a rare one.
Rubber plantations dominate the landscape in areas around Myitkyina.
The government’s Farmland Investigation Commission will assist by probing such cases, but any action still needs to be directed centrally through the national capital. And the chairman of the Naypyidaw Council, the executive body under President Htin Kyaw, Myon Aung's promise in July to resolve all land grab cases within six months now appears fanciful and locally government action is bogged down.
The Kachin government’s sub-committee, including the chief minister, tasked with solving land-grabbing issues is meant to meet regularly; in fact it has only held one meeting since the NLD took office in March, according to Mya Thein.
“They can’t have meetings very often. They are busy in the cabinet,” he said. “Actually, if they are given this responsibility, they should undertake all the cases clearly.”
It is a lack of progress and certainty that plagues regular farmers throughout the state.
“The worst thing is every farmer doesn’t have awareness. We are afraid of government since the past. Living is unstable in everywhere because of the conflict,” Lahpai Zai said.
“They love their land. We still don’t know what to do.”
Follow Jack Board on Twitter: @JackBoardCNA