By Wa Lone and Simon Lewis
YE BU, Myanmar (Reuters) – Maw Maw Oo discreetly pushed the “record” button on her smartphone as the state ministers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s months-old civilian government started talking.
For the next hour they tried to convince her that farmers from her village in eastern Myanmar should sign away ownership claims to land the farmers say they were granted the right to cultivate in perpetuity but was later seized by the military.
Maw Maw Oo refused the deal, under which villagers would be allowed to work some plots on a portion of the land the army says it does not need.
Since her uncle set himself on fire in a dramatic protest last year, the 45-year-old widow and mother-of-three has become a leader among the residents of Ye Bu, a village in Shan State roiled by a lengthy dispute with the country’s still-powerful armed forces.
On Thursday she was sentenced to a month in jail, along with dozens of other farmers involved in the dispute, after the military accused them of trespassing on land they say is theirs.
When Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) stormed to power in an election last year, the victory was in part driven by rural anger over land seizures under military governments that ruled for decades.
Now campaigners such as Maw Maw Oo want to hold the party to its pledges to provide redress.
“The NLD gave us a lot of promises during the election campaign that they will find solutions for land conflicts with the military, but no solution has appeared until now,” said Maw Maw Oo, who says she records all her meetings.
At stake in Ye Bu is valuable farmland, on much of which military officials have sought to develop agro-industrial projects with companies including Asia’s largest agricultural conglomerate, Charoen Pokphand Group of Thailand.
Few of the villagers who say they lost land have any documents supporting their claim – not unusual in rural Myanmar.
Suu Kyi’s administration has tried to establish cordial relations with the generals and has not challenged the army’s outsized economic role, which hinges on control of resources and vast land holdings.
The NLD wanted a solution to the land issue that did not “damage the image and dignity” of the military, said Soe Nyunt Lwin, previously a pro-democracy activist but now Shan state’s planning and finance minister. On the other hand, “I don’t want farmers in prison”, he said, speaking before Thursday’s verdicts.
“We won in the election with the manifesto which clearly said we would sort out the land problem, so we cannot stay in power without finding a solution.”
In Ye Bu, interviews with civilian officials, an army major and nearly two dozen farmers show that the local military command is putting up a fight to keep the land it now controls.
The army sued 96 farmers who have continued to work on the disputed land on charges including trespassing and destruction of property.
A court in the Shan state capital Taunggyi on Thursday sentenced 72 farmers, including Maw Maw Oo, to a month in prison, according to Mya Myitzu, a lawyer representing them. At least two dozen others, some elderly, were also convicted but released after a paying a fine, she said.
The verdicts do little to settle the conflict and dealt a blow to hopes the NLD can resolve thousands of outstanding land disputes around the country.
“This case is not only about the farmers in this place, this is a national problem,” Mya Myitzu said, pledging to appeal.
The case had been brought by the army’s Eastern Command.
“I sued them because we already told them: ‘If you want to work here, you have to follow the discipline of the Eastern Command’,” Major Aung Htwe told Reuters in an interview before the verdicts. “But they have the mindset that this is their own land.”
In August, at the meeting attended by Reuters reporters, ministers in the NLD-led state government told Maw Maw Oo and another villager that the officials had negotiated a settlement with the military.
Some villagers would be allowed to continue farming and might have seen the charges dropped, if they acknowledged the military as the lawful owner of the land.
Despite reforms under the previous government, Myanmar’s land laws are piecemeal and contain overlapping provisions.
The vast majority of land seizure cases date from the 1990s and early 2000s, amid a military-led transition from socialism to a market-driven economy. The state technically owned all land, but farmers were granted rights to cultivate it.
Families who may have cultivated land for generations rarely hold any formal title. Tax receipts are often used as proof of ownership, but the damp climate makes preservation of paper records difficult.
Although army chief Min Aung Hlaing said in 2013 the military would hand back unused land, only a fraction of land earmarked by lawmakers has been returned, according the NLD’s Sein Win, who sat on the Farmland Investigation Commission, a parliamentary body tasked with scrutinizing thousands of land grab claims before the election.
The village of Ye Bu – or “hot water” – dates from the early 1970s, when General Ne Win, the authoritarian ruler of the country then known as Burma, launched a plan to resettle people from the dry zone in the country’s center.
Farmers cleared virgin jungle and expected to work the land thereafter themselves, said Maw Maw Oo’s father, Lu Than.
But in 2004, about 4,000 acres near the village was divided among government ministries to develop into plantations, said Hlaing Min, deputy director of the district-level land records office in Taunggyi.
“Many soldiers came down to my farm when I was growing corn and destroyed it by force,” farmer Aung Din told Reuters. “It was the time of the military government. No one dared to go against what they were doing.”
Authorities paid villagers no compensation, locals said.
At least 10 Ye Bu villagers have tax receipts showing that they tilled the land before its seizure, but others say their documents have been mislaid or damaged.
Hundreds say they previously farmed the land, but the military only recognizes 47 people as having any claim.
A military official told Reuters the land at Ye Bu was needed to feed soldiers and their families.
Tim Millar, program manager at Namati, a legal advocacy working on land disputes across Myanmar, said a key factor influencing whether the military would keep contested land was its potential for profit.
The army, which took control of all 4,000 acres in Ye Bu in 2009, has granted private companies and individuals permission to set up a sugar cane plantation, an ethanol factory and corn fields, residents and a paralegal working for Namati said.
In 2012 it invited a local branch of CP Group – a conglomerate run by Thailand’s richest family – to rear chickens for egg production on the land. CP Group entered Myanmar – then largely closed to foreign investors – in 1996.
Two serving managers and a former veterinarian at Myanmar CP Livestock, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said until recently the company regularly contracted out farming work to military units.
“We don’t dare to enter the CP area because they made a fence,” said Myint Khine, one of three farmers Reuters spoke to who said the chicken farm was constructed on their farmland.
There is no suggestion that CP Group had any involvement in or knowledge of farmers being turned off land. But events in Ye Bu highlight the risk to investors in Myanmar’s rapidly opening economy of becoming sucked into land disputes.
A spokesman told Reuters CP was not currently involved in managing the farm it set up near Ye Bu, although it did not rule out returning to the site.
Myanmar CP Livestock spokesman Soe Lwin said the Ye Bu operation had been suspended at the army’s request in May, leaving the chicken farm empty. The company had stopped working with the military elsewhere in Myanmar, he said.
In May 2015, Maw Maw Oo camped out on the farmland she says is hers, an act that would earn her the first of several criminal charges for trespassing.
Maw Maw Oo’s uncle, Myint Aung, hearing a rumor that his niece had been arrested, scrawled messages of protest on a wooden board, poured gasoline down his front and set himself alight. He later died of his burns.
This year Ye Bu farmers again sowed the fields in the planting season that began in May. In June, the army began filing lawsuits against them, court records show.
Major Aung Htwe said most of the farmers the army recognizes as having some claim have signed its proposed deal, which requires farmers to pay the military for irrigation.
But Maw Maw Oo said she and around 20 others declined, citing a lack of long-term guarantees.
“I’ve already lost my uncle in this dispute, so I’m never going to sign,” said Maw Maw Oo. “This land is for our future generations.”
(Editing by Alex Richardson)