DALA, Rangoon Division — Just after dawn, plainclothes Burmese naval officers entered a wooden shack and roused a young rice farmer from his sleep. They marched him to their nearby barracks and locked him up without explanation.
By the time The Khaw Lu Maw was released, the shack that had been his lifelong home was gone, his belongings scattered amid the debris. One by one, other homes in the riverside community of Dala were bulldozed. Residents had farmed the land for generations, but the navy took it over this year to expand a base.
“They want to show us they’re the ones with the power,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “That they can do what they want.”
Recent political reforms have won Burma widespread praise and the lifting of international sanctions, but for farmers who happen to be in the way of military or business plans, land rights have improved little since a half-century era of military rule ended in 2011. It is a recipe for strife in a country where 70 percent of the labor force depends on agriculture, and where foreign investors, often working with current or former military officials, are scrambling to build roads, factories, power plants, bridges and industrial-sized plantations.
The government has made it tougher in some cases for land to be seized from farmers, and has formed a commission to handle land confiscation issues. But that has not helped many farmers, like those in Dala, who have been working land that was formally taken from them years ago under the old junta. Rising prospects for foreign investment are inspiring many owners to take possession and evict the farmers.
Though the new government has intervened at times, it often does not, and it has even passed laws that have been used against those attempting to resist.
Legal experts in Burma said a new law on peaceful assemblies is being used regularly to arrest, try and imprison people who stand up against land grabs by the rich and powerful. In addition, recent legislation has given the government the authority to seize land in the name of “national interest.”
“The problem is, when the government tries to address a hot-button issue,” said Murray Hiebert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “officials simultaneously introduce reformist policies as well as ways to retreat to the behavior of the old days.”
Other experts say that after 50 years of military administration, those drafting the laws continue to be driven by security concerns.
The most high-profile case has been in the northwest’s Sagaing Division, where thousands have joined protests over plans to give 8,000 acres of farmland to an expanding Chinese-run copper mine, a joint venture with a Burma military-run conglomerate.
Arrests have been common. Naw Ohn Hla, who started fighting injustice during the days of dictatorship, was hauled away for the 10th time in as many years in August while seeking permission to protest the mine.
She was sentenced to two years in prison for disrupting public tranquility, said her lawyer, Robert San Aung. That is an old law, but she’s also awaiting charges under the peaceful assembly law that was adopted last year.
The two pieces of legislation are being used together against farmers and activists protesting land grabs and other grievances, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nonprofit organization staffed by former political prisoners in Burma. It said that as of last month, 29 people had been sentenced and 125 others were still awaiting trial or expressing their views in peaceful demonstrations.
President Thein Sein has said land reform is one of Burma’s most pressing issues. The country went from being a relatively wealthy Asian country to one of the continent’s poorest under the military junta. Much of that former wealth came from rice exports, which plummeted as land rights weakened.
Farmers officially lost property rights in the junta’s early years, but were allowed to continue working the land as long as they paid taxes. In the last decade of dictatorship, land was regularly taken with little or no compensation for economic projects, industrial zones and military bases.
Defense Minister Lt-Gen Wai Lwin said in July the military would not only stop seizures, but return undeveloped land that had been illegally seized.
Thein Tun, a lawmaker and secretary of Parliament’s farmland investigation commission, said the panel had helped resolve several land-grab cases, though there is more to be done. He said farmers have received about US$700,000 in additional compensation from a tycoon who had taken 106 acres for a hotel resort in western Burma. He also said a company that had taken 814 acres in the Irrawaddy Delta town of Myaung Mya decades ago had to give it back.
Claims for more than 100,000 acres have been put before the commission, though that is believed to be a pittance of what was actually taken. The minister said only a third of those claims would even be considered, without fully explaining why.
New land laws do not eliminate the potential for more dubious seizures because they include exceptions for loosely defined fallow and virgin lands.
The military has long owned the Dala land, but only recently began to use it.
The seizures formally occurred in the early 1990s, when officers in light blue navy uniforms offered 40 farming families cash for their land. Most agreed, feeling they had no other choice.
For each acre, the families received about enough money to buy three chickens. And though they were allowed to keep farming, they were charged rent that far exceeded the payment received: $50 per acre per year, plus 10 percent of their harvest.
In January 2013, farmers were told to leave because the navy was going ahead with a “special project.” The Khaw Lu Maw was among those who stayed anyway, and continued plowing and reharvesting.
They were forced off their land in late June. Excavators tore up freshly planted rice shoots. The foundation of a towering fence was built in July. Homes were erased, including the one where The Khaw Lu Maw lived with his parents until they died a few years ago.
“This house is where I was born, where I grew up and played as a kid,” the 26-year-old said. “All my memories of my mother and father were in that house.”
Since losing his home, The Khaw Lu Maw has been living with friends and trying to figure out what to do with his life.
“If I could go back to my house now,” he said, “I’d try to find a picture of my mother or anything else to remind me,” he said. “But I know it’s useless. They destroyed everything. It’s all gone. There is nothing I can do.”