Karen State – land disputes a growing problem

The once forested slopes of the hills around Kyeik Pe Lor village are now surrounded by rubber trees or burnt black in preparation for the planting of more rubber trees. Forests have been burnt to the ground. The burnt land once was part of the villager’s rotation rice farming, but now has been taken over by a company for a rubber plantation project.

A Kyeik Pe Lor villager, Mahn No Keh, spoke to Karen News about the effect the rubber plantation has had on local farmers.

“The company came and cleared the area, now it has become problem for us. We are farmers and make our living from growing rice. In the future we won’t have land to make our living.”

Kyeik Pe Lor is a Karen community of about 60 families. It is east of Dawei Town, in Tenasserim Division in Southern Burma. The village had been relocated by the Burma Army to a different site, but villagers returned and set up Kyeik Pe Lor village in 2000, after been allowed to by the Burma Army.

A Burmese company known to the villagers as Yen Htun Naing or Dawei Nagan (Dragon) Company came to Kyeik Pe Lor village in 2010 and started to clear the land for the rubber plantation. Before 2010 due to the armed conflict between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burma military government, the company could not work on the rubber plantation project.

Villagers claim that following the KNU and the Burma government’s cease-fire in 2012, the company began to clear the area, destroying almost the entire forest. The local stream dried up and villagers rice farming lands were taken.

Mahn No Keh told Karen News.
“Since the huge forest clearing, villagers have had problem, it is hot and our streams dried up.”

The villagers claim that the company cleared as much as a thousand acres of land around the village. A company official based in Kyeik Pe Lor village, Myo Zin Thant, claimed to Karen News that the cleared land is 450 acres and 150 acres of the land has been planted with rubber trees.

The former military regime and the new government has granted and leased land to contract farming projects, such as rubber and palm oil projects, in Tenasserim Division. Many of these areas are around Karen villages and include land that villagers use for farming and the forests that local people conserve.

Villagers allege that land confiscation and land grabs were common under the former military regime, but in recent months incidents have escalated.
Saw Ka Ko told Karen News.

“When the company came they took my 10 acres of land. I grew rubber and cashew nuts. Other people also had land taken. We cannot do anything. They paid me 50,000kyat (around $50) for one acre, but they don’t pay me for the loss of my rubber and cashew nut trees. My family as has other villagers, lost the land we used to grow our rice every year. The company told us that the area had already been bought from our leaders. They said that the land does not belong to us. I think we don’t have a choice, we just have to accept it.”

The villagers said that at first they tried to protest to the company, but were forced to accept that they had lost their land.
Saw Moe Win, the village secretary told Karen News.

“At first, we didn’t accept it. Our villagers submitted a letter of complaint to the company. The company came and told us they had been granted [permission] from Naypyidaw [the country’s capital and home to its parliament]. We cannot do anything, as we are only villagers, we don’t have any authority. They told us if we protest it [the land] will still become theirs.”

The villagers allege that despite their initial refusal to give up their land, a former village pastor, Thera Kya Thein, forced the villagers to accept it. The villagers also allege that the company has an understanding with the local KNU military leaders to proceed with their project.
Saw Moe Win said.

“A village pastor cooperated with the company, he came and asked me to agree with the company. I refused him, I told him we want to protect [the land] for the sake of the entire village.”

Karen News has spoken to the pastor, Thera Kya Thein, who said that some villagers as well as the [local] KNU leaders granted permission for the company to go ahead with their plantation project, otherwise the company could not have been able to carry out the project. Thera Kya Thein refused to name those involved.

Karen News contacted the KNU’s Kar Ser Doh Township officials responsible for the area who said that they have not given permission to the company and that they were not aware of the land grab issues.

Saw Moe Win said.
“Our village population has increased, but it is now difficult to find land. In the future, there will be problems for the villagers they will have to move away from their village.”

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