Let Us Stage Another Saya San Revolution

By Kanbawza Win | 14 August 2014 | Taunggyi Times

More than half a century of military dictatorship to be exact since March 2nd 1962, there have been several sporadic outburst against the ruling Junta starting from 7th July 1962 but the major ones that shakes the government was the 8888 Democracy Uprising and the Saffron Revolution of 2007. The students of 1988 and the monks of 2007 have all made supreme sacrifices for the country and people and now it is the turn of the peasants of Burma to show to the world that they are also nationalists and love the country. With so much land grabbing by the Tatmadaw and the companies owned by the cronies backed by the international companies and multilateral corporations of the West and China, it is time for the peasants and the working people to rise up against this unfair system and demonstrate to the world that Burma is owned by the people of Burma and that the people are the masters of their own fate and maker of their own destiny. The peasants who formed the majority of the population of Burma to be exact more than 70% of the people live in the country side has been a major political force since time immemorial and has a precedent of uprising in the 1930s.

Saya San (ဆရာစံ) Peasants Uprising

“Saya San Rebellion” of 1930-1932 in British Burma, was one of Southeast Asia's quintessential anti-colonial movements, spreading throughout the delta of Burma into hills of the Shan States; involving numerous communities, thousands of villagers and several thousand counter insurgency troops.[1] By the 1890s, British colonial officials had determined that the main pacification campaigns were successful, and they could concentrate on the business of building a social-economic infrastructure that could support their interest in the vast teak, mineral, and agricultural resources that their new colony provided. However, in the same year a small group of Buddhist associations with contemporary forms of organization and structure were founded by lay members in an effort to preserve the religion and its place in society.[2] It finally pave the way for formation of the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA) which planned to participate more directly in political protest and demonstrations.[3] In order to engage rural communities, members of GCBA would travel into countryside conducting interviews, collecting data, and filling reports to establish lines of communication with emerging village activists. Saya San joined GCBA and worked at the countryside for more than two year, so he was familiar with rural places and had direct connection with peasants.

The Great Depression of 1930 had a devastating impact on rice prices. Rice was Burma’s most important export commodity and its fortunes on commercial markets affected much of the rural population. The high population density in central Burma and the concentration of land ownership in fewer hands created a large number of disaffected landless laborers increasingly aggrieved with colonial government, whom they lamed both their inability to work the land independently and for decline of their real incomes as rice worker.[4] Thus, rural cultivators, already frustrated by the drop of rice price were quick to respond to Saya San’s appeals involving a mixture of anti-tax rhetoric, Buddhist prophecies and guarantees of invulnerability.

D.G.E. Hall, the pioneer of writing history on Southeast Asia and famous British Burma’s historian, traces the cause of the rebellion as political factors and economic ones. However, he also recognized the economic discontent.[5] For those Burmese historians, Saya San was portrayed as an early nationalist hero. These interpretations stressed on economic factors, which was the cause of popular dissatisfaction. The movement was not aimless, instead, it was rational and justifiable. John Cady is the first western historian used a vast amount of British documents, including parliamentary papers and police reports, to create a narrative by recognizing the localized form of political expression. In his book “A history of modern Burma”, he wrote“…it was a deliberately planned affair based on traditional Burmese political and religious patterns.”[6]

The Galon (*Vlef) army rebels, like the Boxers of China,[7] carried charms and tattoos to make themselves invulnerable to British bullets. Armed only with swords and spears, Saya San’s rebels were no match for British troops with machine guns hastily called from India. The revolt was crushed, and the casualties were in thousands and nobody knows the exact figures [8] just like the 8888 Democracy Uprisings and Saffron Revolution the authorities never release the exact figures. In August 1931, Saya San was captured, but the rebellion had continued for nearly two years By the end of 1932, more than 10,000 rebels were killed and a further 9000 rebels had surrendered or captured. Saya San and 125 other rebels were hanged and almost 1400 were sentenced to terms of imprisonment or of transportation.[9]

Widespread support for Saya San betrayed the precarious and unpopular position of British rule in Burma. Saya San Rebellion was a key stage in the transition of Burmese nationalist; to the urban elite, which vividly demonstrated the survival of traditional values in the countryside but at the same time proving that a peasant uprising could only achieve temporary success without specific and negotiable aims which required modern political skill.

Land Grabbing

Currently, inadequate land laws have opened rural Burma to rampant land grabbing by unscrupulous, well-connected businessmen who anticipate a boom in agricultural and property investment. If unchecked, the gathering trend has the potential to undermine the country's broad reform process and impede long-term economic progress.[10] Under the former military regime, land grabbing became a common and largely uncontested practice. Government bodies, particularly military units, were able to seize large tracts of farmland, usually without compensation. While some of the land was used for the expansion of military bases, new government offices or infrastructure projects, much of it was used either by military units for their own commercial purposes or sold to private companies. The threat of military force meant there was little grass roots opposition to these land seizures and few avenues to secure adequate compensation.

Now with the new democratic order as local community’s band together to fight back against seizure of their lands there have been several problems. Many of the current land disputes date to the period before the 2010 general elections. The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation's Department of Agricultural Planning reported in January 2010 that 216 companies had received a total of 1.75 million acres (708,200 hectares) of farmland in the form of state concessions.[11]

Many of the disputes now being contested are related to land taken in the mid- to late-1990s. A significant proportion of the land grabbing during this period took place in ethnic-majority states in the country's peripheral regions.

This was especially the case in areas along the border with China in Kachin and Shan States and along the border with Thailand in the Karen and Mon States. The army has maintained a strong presence in these areas to battle ethnic freedom fighters and uphold tenuous ceasefires with other insurgent organizations. Much of the land was taken for military camps and military access roads, but also for commercial projects either run by the military or companies with ties to the military. Significant land grabbing also took place in the Sagaing and Irrawaddy Divisions, where these is no insurgency.

With new hope for an economic revival and rising property prices sparked by Thein Sein's reformist government, land grabbing has continued in many of these areas and has also increased in central Burma and in Rakhine State in the west of the country. Current land grabbing is forcing farmers off their land for commercial agri-business ventures, infrastructure projects, tourism development, industrial facilities and gas pipelines. Political and economic reforms, together with relaxed sanctions and a better relationship with the West, have raised expectations of a foreign investment-led economic boom.

The symbiotic relationship between serving and former Tatmadaw officers and influential private businessmen that flourished under the previous military regime remains largely unchanged under the current administration. Indeed, these alliances are in the forefront to land lucrative joint venture deals with foreign investors. Although widely derided as "cronies" of the military, these businessmen have long occupied a powerful niche in Burma's economy, a role which will be enhanced with foreign investment-driven faster economic growth. At the same time, connections to the security forces provide these firms with the muscle to intimidate or force small landholders off their claimed lands. Rising land grabbing is resulting in greater displacement and landlessness among Burma's rural population. Public dissatisfaction with the situation, coupled with a new openness brought about by the reform process, is leading some farmers and other land owners to protest the seizures.

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. 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.”[12] 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.

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 much publicized Lepadoung protest has involved the forced removal of villagers from three villages in Sagaing Division to expand a copper mine being developed by the government-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and the Wan Bao Co. Ltd, a subsidiary of China North Industries Corp. A protest that included a large number of Buddhist monks supporting displaced villagers was violently broken up by police. Incendiary devices fired into the protest camp severely burned several of the monks, according to press reports. The heavy-handed crackdown sparked outrage across the country.

In another case, farmers in Mandalay Division filed a court case against the Bureau of Air Defense and the High Tech Concrete company owned by army crony Aik Tun for their perceived as unlawful seizure of 40 acres (16.1 hectares) of land. Most recently, on February 26, a police attempt to break up a protest in Maubin Township, Irrawaddy Division resulted in a clash where one policemen was killed and dozens of police and villagers injured. The farmers were protesting the confiscation of their land by the military in 1996 and its later sale to a businessman in 2004.

A movement among farmers to win back confiscated land has spread widely across the country, with protesters in most of Burma’s biggest cities asking the President for help. In downtown Rangoon, more than 200 landowners were asked to give back land that was confiscated by the government more than two decades ago in 1991.In Mandalay, Burma’s second-biggest city, after homes in the city’s Myayeenandar Quarter were bulldozed by the municipal committee and land in the Shwe Kyat Yat area was seized by the government’s department of construction. In Mingalardon Township, north of Rangoon, more than 100 farmers staged a protest urging a land investigation commission in Naypyidaw to probe the seizure of 800 acres of land since 2010 for an industrial zone. They say they did not receive enough notice or proper compensation when the land was taken by Zaykabar Company, a major Burmese conglomerate.

“If we can’t work on the land, how can we survive? We haven’t received any compensation or substitute land. That’s why we want the president to take action.” [13]

It is understood that the Thein Sein regime is trying to gain legitimacy and get away with impunity for the crimes against humanity committed by the successive military regimes, BSPP, SLORC, SPDC, and USDA.[14] Under the 2008 Nargis Constitution, the state is the ultimate owner of all land and natural resources above and below it. Land rights are exclusively in the form of either leasehold rights, user rights, or the right to cultivate a certain plot of land. These rights are granted on the approval of local government bodies appointed by the central government. Burma’s resources are being sold off to the highest bidder. Foreign investors can now lease land for a period of 50 years with two 10 year extensions. In ‘undeveloped and remote’ areas in Burma, the government will allow foreign investors to hold even longer leases. This seals away swathes of land and ecosystems for generations of farmers and residents – seriously jeopardising their right to food and a secure livelihood. Burma’s President has proven he’s willing and eager to sell out its residents for personal gain and the benefit of his friends’ benefits. Is this the way to feed the poor of Burma? [15]

In May 2013, 40 ethnic non-governmental organizations from across Burma calls on the government, ethnic militias and the international community to address a surge in land-grabbing, as companies move into Burma’s ethnic regions following recent ceasefire agreements. But the two government committees on land use declined to meet the activists. Land Investment Committee, headed by Union Solidarity Development Party MP Tin Htut, and the Land Allotment and Utilization Scrutiny Committee, chaired by Win Tun Min of the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry refused to meet them [16] as they have been directed by the Thein Sein government which has something to hide. They have their own hidden agenda.

There was a deep concern over the lack of legal protection of the ethnic land rights. They are increasingly losing farmland to mining or agro-industry firms. The 2012 Land Law and other laws, they said, often fail to recognize land tenure of farmers—especially those reliant on traditional shifting agriculture—or local customary law regarding land. Most ethnic villagers struggle to register land ownership as the procedures are too expensive or because they lack the required ID cards.[17] Most of Burma’s ethnic nationalities live in the border regions which are rich in mineral wealth, timber, fertile land and rivers suitable for hydropower dam development. The areas are plagued by long-running ethnic rebel insurgencies against the central government.

Tatmadaw the Biggest Dacoit

An increase in resource-grabbing by military-supported investment projects could also lead to a flare-up in ethnic conflict. Burmese military had used the ceasefires to expand its presence and to push through projects that confiscate resources from local communities. “However, an Upper House lawmaker says that a parliamentary committee that has investigated land-grabbing by the Tatmadaw will help return some of this confiscated land to affected farmers”, the Myanmar Times reports. Minister for Defense Lt-Gen Wai Lwin has informed the Lower House committee that the military would give back the lands in July, according to MP Hla Swe. “The army will give back all farmland confiscated, except that on which buildings have been constructed or are under construction,” he said. The committee released a report in March that investigated 565 complaints of land-grabbing by the Tatmadaw in past decades, which had resulted in the loss of 247,077 acres (about 100,000 hectares) of farmland.[18] But a reliable source indicated that this is just one third of what the Tatmadaw has confiscated. However, up to this date nothing has been implemented.

As such, the system is largely incompetent and virtually powerless against powerful vested interests in other parts of the state or private companies. Many farmers in Burma are in debt due to a widespread inability to access credit through formal channels and the high costs of agricultural inputs. Unchecked land-grabbing has the potential to imperil both Thein Sein's political reforms and the overall economic potential of the country. The current lack of transparency and public participation in the planning and decision-making processes involved in land management has served to continue public perceptions that land transfers are frequently undertaken outside the rule of law. This has undermined local confidence in both Thein Sein's supposed democratic government and the overall reform process. The situation is compounded by an enduring attitude in the bureaucracy that treats farmers with contempt, threats and intimidation. Rising landlessness, meanwhile, will push many farmers into cities, creating a new urban underclass and a potential source of instability.[19]

Growing discontent among small landowners, displaced agrarians and landless rural workers has the potential to create a powerful voting bloc in the 2015 elections. Nearly 70% of Burma's population of some 60 million live in rural areas, among which one-third are estimated to be landless laborers. Effective land reform promises thus have the potential to win massive popular support at the next polls. In apparent recognition of the importance of the rural vote, Naypyidaw-based parliamentarians are paying more attention to the plight of farmers. Both the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) [20]- commonly perceived as the party of the former military rulers - and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) have broached the topic in parliament.

A discussion about military land confiscations was halted in Parliament in Aug 2013 after a representative, Brig Gen Kyaw Oo Lwin, interrupted the proceedings and urged other lawmakers to move onto another topic. The Tatmadaw has forcibly seized more than 250,000 acres of farmland in the country. During the former military regime, the government allowed the Army to confiscate land to build barracks. However, the Commission found that the Army abused its power by confiscating land and selling it back to others for a profit.[21]

A parliamentary investigation into land grabs ruled that less than 10 percent of nearly 100,000 hectares of land confiscated by the junta would be returned. This carries enormous ethical implications for western companies, who are quickly lining up to carve a slice of Burma’s natural wealth. An offshore oil and gas tender launched in April attracted bids from a number of American and European firms, including Shell, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Statoil and Total – of which the latter remained active in Burma even after the introduction of European sanctions in 1996.

Nonetheless, Naypyidaw has made half-hearted efforts to assuage western predilections for “responsible investment”. In 2012, Thein Sein pledged to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – a global standard that requires the government and companies to disclose all natural resource revenue payments.[22] But to date, the regime has only completed two out of five steps required to become a candidate country - failing most prominently, and perhaps tellingly, to develop an inclusive multi-stakeholder working group that represents civil society across Burma’s ethnic groups. The US, to its credit, is the only country to impose reporting requirements on companies looking to invest in Burma, and also a ban on gem imports citing concerns about ongoing abuses in resource-rich minority regions, including Kachin state. This, along with the Tatmadaw’s track record of trampling on civil society voices and siphoning off public funds, should be enough to persuade investors to proceed with caution.

In 2013 the Asian Human Rights Commission has followed reports of a larger number of conflicts over land grabs and attempted grabs in Burma. All these events indicate that despite the extensive political changes taking place in Burma, many old habits are continuing under new guises. While the government increasingly insists that things be done according to law, the facts suggest otherwise. Administrators and other officials are on the one hand working harder to give an impression that they have the legal authority to continue with the practices of the past, but on the other hand they are continuing to fail to come up to even the minimal domestic standards required of them. Laws on the books offer extensive opportunities for the military to protect its interests; notwithstanding, military and civilian personnel alike struggle to conform to even the minimal standards of such odious legislation.

As long as the voices of people in places like Salingyi, Nattalin, Ma-Ubin and Migyaunggan continue to be ignored, or muffled under procedures, regulations and injunctions issued to give a false impression of legality in the continued grabbing of land, it will not be possible to talk meaningfully about democracy and the rule of law in Burma. With the country's poor reputation for human-rights violations and the alleged involvement of businessmen in some of those violations, including land seizures, many foreign investors are wary of investing with partners associated with such unsavory practices. Rising governmental and parliamentary attention to the issue will also bring more scrutiny to arrangements by local and foreign firms seeking to develop land-intensive projects. Media attention will also keep the issue in the spotlight in the lead up to the 2015 elections.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that her party had received many complaint letters from farmers and landowners who had lost their land. “Without rule of law, land is seized from farmers and families are displaced,” she told the crowd, which include many farmers and displaced land owners who carried placards reading, [23]

Many people in Burma are living or farming on land to which they have no title, meaning they face eviction if the government decides the land should be used for something else. The lack of secure tenure could inhibit agricultural development, as well as makeing for a difficult environment for investors. What’s needed is an inclusive and transparent consultative process to develop a land policy, involving civil society, farmers, private sector companies (including from other sectors using land, such as forestry, mining and tourism) and other stakeholders. This needs to balance interests concerning national food security, economic development and human rights. There was a lack of transparency around the government’s granting of land concessions to companies for development, and how the existing tenants of land taken over by firms were dealt with. If Burma starts to implement a consistent and transparent Environmental and Social Impact Assessment process, as foreseen under the Environment Law and the Foreign Investment Law, this should help identify where displacement [of people] is occurring and provide a mechanism for ensuring that it is in line with international safeguards standards. But this is still a long way away from that.

Final Solution

It seems that all major economic developments in Burma will begin with one commodity,
land. Whatever a multinational company wants to do, be it build a factory, an electrical transmission line, or dig a mine, it will need land. But, there is no land law in Burma. The people do not even have title to land that their families have owned for generations. This means that there is no proper mechanism by which to transfer land, including judicial procedures through which to resolve disputes. Burma, economically, is a corrupt and savage place. International companies are being courted by the regime, which promises to supply the land.[24] The regime is also using incentives - bribes - to pervert ethnic leaders that have influence in the minority homelands. Reports of inducements to such leaders (e.g. Karen traitor Mutu Say Poe) are widespread, for example from Myanmar Egress and Dawei Princess for the multi-billion dollar Tavoy Port development. In summary, a terrible corporate rape appears primed and ready to go.

They are a rallying cry for many groups, from the affected villagers to political groups such as 88 Generation and also ethnic nationality organizations. This creates a strong alliance, which the regime is afraid to confront.[25] If the land is being stolen for a Western company, the protestors should rage against it. When the international business press learns that local people are protesting, the companies, to save face, will have to reverse course (witness Apple’s travails with Foxconn in China). Protest alone will stop most if not all major land thefts, and through this halt the corporate juggernaut in its tracks.

Burma remains a mostly rural country, in which the majority of the population relies on small farms for their livelihoods. Regrettably, the rate of landless farmers has been on the rise for several years. The local inhabitants repeatedly suffer serious gross human rights abuses, including forced labor, environmental degradation, bodily terrorization and improper detention, and maltreatment of livings along with land confiscation. Their capacity to prevent these impacts is hindered by their lack of information on respective projects and legal barriers made by the authorities.[26]

The issue of land confiscation has been continued to be one of the largest problems the country has to address. The inflows of foreign investment, the liberalization of the market, and lack of rule of law including both proper legislation and self-determining courts, have resulted in land confiscation to an alarming degree. The peasants have realized that whether it is a military Junta or a quasi-military government under a guise of civilian government as long as the Tatmadaw influence is there they will have no mercy on them not mentioned fairness. Even the five million people appealing to the government to change the constitution does not move the government proves that there is no available democratic means to change this system. Hence the

quickest solution to this land grabbing problem is for the peasants to rise against the skirt (Longyi) and headdress (Gaung Baung) wearing military to be overthrown just like what the French done to their royalty in 1789. A well-coordinated the 2nd Saya San Peasant revolution is the quickest way for Burma to get rid of this vehemently hated Tatmadaw. So the NLD, 8888 generations, the ethnic nationalities including those in Diaspora should coordinate among themselves and make a concerted drive.

The author can be reached directly at bathannwin@gmail.com


[1]Maitrii, Aung-Thwin (June 2008). "Structuring revolt: communities of interpretation in the historiography of the Saya San rebellion". Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 2 39: 297–317.
[2] Maung Maung (1980). Sangha to Laity: Nationalist Movements of Burma, 1920-194. Columbia, Mo: South Asia Books.
[3] Robert H. Taylor (2009). The State in Myanmar. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3362-6.
[4] Clipson, Edmund Bede (2010). Constructing an Intelligence State: the Colonial Security Services in Burma, 1930-1942 (University of Exeter).
[5] D. G .E. Hall (2008). Burma. Hesperides Press. ISBN 978-1443725415
[6] John Cady (1958). A History of Modern Burma. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801400599
[7] Boxer rebellion of 1900 was the Chinese peasant’s uprisings that attempted to drive the foreign influence out of China
[8] Enclopedia Britannica Saya San quote from Free Press
[9] Patricia Herbert (1982). The Saya San Rebellion (1930-1032) Reappraised, Melbourne: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies: Monash University
[10]McCartney; Brian, Land grabbing as big business in Burma Asia Times 8-3-2013
[11] Ibid
[12] McCarten; Brian,Land grabbing as big business in Burma Asia Times 8-3-2013
[13] Mann; Zarni. Farmers Across Burma Ask Thein Sein for Help Irrawaddy 27-6-2013
[14] Letter to US Prisident by IFBNC 11-5-2013
[15] Hudson Rodd:Nancy International Praise and Grassroots Reality 8-1-2-2012 in DVB
[16] Vrieze:Paul, Ethnic Activists Warn of Surge in Land Grabs After Ceasefires. Irrawaddy 9-5-2013
[17] Ibid
[18] Military to Return Some Confiscated Land Soon: MP Irrawaddy 8-7-2013
[19] McCarten; Brian,Land grabbing as big business in Burma Asia Times 8-3-2013
[20] They were also known as United in Slaughtering Depaeyin Participants as they were the first ones who make an attempt on the life of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and its associates
[21] Weng; Lawi, Army MP Halts Talks on Military Land-Grabs in Burma’s Parliament Irrawaddy 16-8-2013
[22] Hindstrom; Hanna, Burma’s paradox of plenty in Open Democracy 16-8-201
[23] Mann; Zarni. Farmers Across Burma Ask Thein Sein for Help Irrawaddy 27-6-2013
[24] Watson;Roland, How to stop the Corporate Rape of Burma 29-9-2012 http://www.dictatorwatch.org/prstopcorps.html
[25] Ibid
[26] Lin; Zin, Failing land policy in Burma, OpEdNews Op Eds 2/14/2014

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