Burma’s Revolution From Below

Elites still think they’re running the show. But farmers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

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In the streets, paths, and paddy fields of hundreds of Burmese towns and villages, thousands of protesters are mobilizing, in creative and often radical ways, for everything from constitutional change, to educational liberalization, to improved labor standards, to fair energy prices. But most significant — in terms of numbers, commitment, and challenge to the status quo — are the numerous farmers’ protests against the land grabs that went on with impunity during the military era and which are continuing today even amidst Burma’s ostensible transition to democracy.

Though the scale of the problem is difficult to assess, 11,000 cases of land theft have been reported to the parliament’s Farmland Investigation Commission (FIC). Thein Aung, head of the Freedom of Farmers League, has estimated that roughly five percent of Burma’s farmers — in a country where 60 to 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas — are involved in a land dispute. Legislator and FIC member Aung Thein Lin warns that the land protests “are everywhere, and I fear they may result in a national uprising, and if this happens it will reverse our democratic transition.”

As he suggests, these movements are about more than just land. In their opposition to land seizures justified by a narrow vision of economic development, and their rejection of how the elites use the “rule of law” to advance this vision, Burma’s farmers are issuing an increasingly damning judgment of the transition itself. Even as experts concentrate on the country’s elite-driven reforms (the 2015 elections, the peace process, Constitutional amendments), the model on which this all rests is being contested from below.

The government’s current draft of its national land use policy contains in its introduction a clear message about the path it foresees for Burma: “Myanmar has natural resources including precious forests, fertile planes, natural gas and mineral troves, long coastline, snow-capped mountain ranges and big rivers … as such, it is a country which has good fundamentals and environments to invest by the various countries of the world.” This policy frames the country’s land as another commodity to be sold off. However, as pointed out in an analysis by the Transnational Institute, land is not merely an instrument toward “development,” but fulfills other needs — social, personal, and economic — for the people who actually live on it.

This emerges clearly from the words of the protesters themselves. In interviews conducted across Burma, farmers made it clear that losing their land would expose them to fundamental insecurity, even if they were offered fair compensation. They asked questions such as: If I take compensation now, will I be able to buy productive land elsewhere? If not, how long will that money last? If I cannot farm, what will I do when it runs out? It was also clear that, for them, land is more than simply an economic resource. After years of experience they know their land, its fields and forests, its contours and its weather. They find dignity in mastering these domains and in making them flourish.

Farmers’ affinities for their homes, as well as the risks of being left to the vagaries of volatile land markets, produce an understandable skepticism toward Burma’s development agenda. The Letpadaung copper mine affair — a three-year standoff between farmers and the state over a mining project underway on stolen farmland — is one of the most extreme cases. These farmers have continually and ferociously opposed the exploitation of their mountain for a project they believe will destroy their way of life.

Yet in her reaction to these protests, opposition leader and putative human rights defender Aung San Suu Kyi has revealed an inability — or unwillingness — to grasp the farmers’ situation. After unsuccessfully trying to convince the farmers that they must sacrifice for Burma’s development — a vision of development from which they stand to lose everything and gain nothing — Aung San Suu Kyi ultimately exclaimed in exasperation, “Why do they want the mountain?” In so doing, she inadvertently revealed the hollowness of the neoliberal solutions that insist that markets can reconcile every disagreement. She also showed that not only the government, but also the formal opposition, has abandoned poor farmers who stand little chance of benefiting from, or even participating in, Burma’s “development.”

Instead, the law has been deployed against the protesters, through the use of either legally sanctioned state violence or ideological imperatives about respecting the “rule of law.” But in Burma, rhetoric about the “rule of law” has become little more than a way to foreclose or defer necessary political debates instead of enabling people to achieve justice. In nearly all of the dozens of land mobilizations I have studied, participants have reported attempting to go through formal and nonviolent channels to get their land back, only to be rebuffed or ignored. While even the government’s own formal process has acknowledged that thousands of acres were stolen by the military, the military has responded simply that it will not give most of the land back. Even in cases where the government or military have agreed to return seized land, it frequently fails to reach its original owners. Having followed the rules only to find themselves stuck in legal (and hence existential) limbo, farmers are nonetheless told they must respect the law. A community organizer in Sintgu (where farmers took policemen hostage and forced them to sign a document admitting their brutality) described the internal dissonance created when the law itself is unjust: “We have to teach people about the law, but on the other hand, we have to break the law.”

Left with that insoluble contradiction, farmers have begun to take more drastic action. Many are exiting the legal realm to hold Buddhist/occult cursing ceremonies aimed at their tormenters — actions that the government takes seriously enough to respond by arresting participants for defamation of the state. Some take over public spaces to demand the return of land, or they re-enter land from which they have been evicted years before to plow it, displaying both symbolic and material claims to its productive resources, which are often left idle by speculating military-linked businesses. In Kantbalu, a local organizer whose community had been displaced to make way for a government sugar factory described the ambivalence that arises when only “illegal” tactics have a chance to succeed: “We want to pay respect to the law, but unless we hold a plowing protest the government doesn’t pay attention.”

Police crackdowns on such protests have resulted in the deaths of protesters and policemen alike. Activists have taken Chinese workers hostage, law-enforcement officers have arrested countless protesters under draconian laws, and farmers have been left exhausted and impoverished by the battle to hold onto their land. Under such pressure, some are starting to question whether the legal realm is still relevant for their struggle. Ko Taw, an activist from the Movement for Democracy Current Force, has helped dozens of communities organize to get their lands back. Though he teaches them about their rights under the law, when asked what determines success, he told me, “It depends on how they negotiate and how they are organized. The law is not important.”

A protest leader in Mandalay, where residents are fighting to hold onto land earmarked for a new industrial zone, described how her protest chants invoke respect for the law and the constitution. But when I asked her how the constitution could help her, she replied, “The law is just on paper. It does not exist in reality.” Such attitudes suggest that Burma’s most active citizens now view “rule of law” less as a normative goal and more as a game they must master in order to prevail.

This is also evident in other forms of resistance that complement the protests and rallies. The World Bank’s Qualitative Monitoring research has found that farmers in Ayeyawady have increasingly been able to delay loan repayment to the government bank, attributing this to the democratic transition. The farmers are hopeful for further changes, speculating that “maybe next year the loans would be provided instead as grants.”

Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank officials confirmed that the farmers are succeeding in challenging their traditional relationship with the state: “You can’t push [the farmers] too far. They make noise easily nowadays.” A researcher for an international development organization who wanted to remain anonymous agreed: “What truly frightens local administrators is the ability of local people to coerce the state. I’m not talking about organized civil society groups, but rather angry locals calling them up and demanding that a subordinate get fired.” A combination of protests and individual actions has, at least in some areas, succeeded in winning farmers meaningful concessions.

The successes of these movements and village-based politics should not be overstated. In Burma’s central Magwe region, most people still live under the thumb of the state. In outlying regions, ethnic minorities struggle for the freedom to govern themselves and for equal representation in national affairs. Plow protesters often end up in jail, the money they spent plowing their fields squandered. (Ko Taw estimates that only 5 percent of plow protests succeed in getting land returned.)

The question is whether these farmers’ movements might begin to work together, or even transform themselves into political forces. Though all the farmers’ groups I spoke with had organized themselves, political activists have begun connecting them to each other to magnify their collective voice. Recently, over 700 farmers from different parts of upper Burma met in Mandalay and committed not to vote for any politician who neglects farmer issues.

Beyond such short-term mobilizations, a broader hope is that these movements will empower average people to become agents of political change and challenge the top-down management of Burma’s transition. In a political context long dominated by elites deigning to speak for the people, the land protests offer a sign that the people are demanding to speak for themselves. They insist that Burma’s development must consider their needs, and they are not going away.

Photo Credit: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Elliott Prasse-Freeman is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Yale University.