Burma's Land Reform

Friday, March 1, 2013

US Land Bank, Railway Bonds, and Burma’s Land Reform

Winding Ledo Road.
It was one pale-dawn in mid or late 1973 when our platoon entered a friendly Kachin village about 5 miles far-south-west of the winding stretch of Ledo Road about 15 miles from Myitkyina. Our company forward outpost then was right on the Ledo Road at 8 miles Post from Myitkyinar.

Just the night before, our company was told of the battalion’s radio-intercept report of that resettlement village defended by a 20 strong people-militia unit was being raided by a roaming KIA unit and our platoon was sent straight away there that night to aid the village.

We have no motorized-transport and so we walked about 15 miles on the jungle paths intentionally avoiding unsealed Ledo Road to avoid possible KIA ambushes as some times KIA attack on a village was just to draw the reinforcing army-column into their ambush.

Blood Bath in a Kachin Resettlement Village

The village was one of those nameless government villages with just a number. All these villages are called Pa-la-na (1),  Pa-la-na (2),  Pa-la-na (3), etc and we didn’t even know how many of these Pa-la-na villages were in that vast remote area as there were so many of them along the famous old Ledo Road from Myitkyinar all the way to Hugaung Valley.

These government-sponsored Pa-la-na villages were populated mostly by Burmese and Kachin ex-army soldiers and every village had a well-armed people-militia unit to defend themselves against the KIA. Almost all Pa-la-na villages were right by the main Ledo Road, but that village populated totally by about 50 Kachin veterans from the army with their families was located deep inside the jungle.

Probably they thought their Kachin brothers from KIA would be lenient on them. But they thought wrong and they paid with the lives of many of them. When we got there it was too late. The whole village under the pale dawn light was lifelessly silent. Even the normally barkfull dogs were nowhere to be seen.

The fearful survivors, some hiding under the houses and some hiding in the nearby fields, slowly came out once they saw us Burmese soldiers. From them we discovered the whole slaughter.

A 40-50 strong KIA regular unit (men at the point of their column wearing the familiar army uniforms to trick the village sentries) surprised the village’s people-militia late yesterday and quickly disarmed them. They then tied all 20 militia-men and force-marched them into the shallow stream just outside the village and forced them to kneel down and then chopped their heads off one by one.

The village Chief who was also the chief of the militia had a young Shan wife he met and married while he was serving his last few years as a sergeant-major in the army in Shan State. She was gang-raped and finally stabbed to death. They then ate whatever villagers had for their dinners and left the village at the nightfall.

A roaming KIA regular unit that raids government villages.
We collected all the bodies and their chopped-off heads and buried them in a long deep ditch we dug as the mass grave. The whole village or whatever left of it was later relocated to another friendly village near Myitkyinar and the village was forever abandoned, we were told.

Even after well over 40 years I still remember the headless bodies and the faces of weeping men and wailing women and crying children from that slaughtered village, and still wonder about those brave people who dared to resettle in a dangerous jungle just to work on a measly 50 free acres each family got from the government.

And whenever I saw those cowboy movie scenes where American settlers in the Wild West were brutally raided and slaughtered by the red-Indians that bloody memory of mine came up into my mind again and again.

American Railway Bonds

An old US Railways Bond.
When I was still a high school student I read an old story about how early American settlers had conquered the Wild West by building thousands and thousands of miles of railway tracks into the vast wilderness.

Most interesting part of the story was how American railways barons like Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt - who built that famous New York’s Grand Central - and Thomas Scott had obtained massive amount of money to build their railways by borrowing from mainly English banks and some other European banks.

How did they borrow that vast amount of money? They sold railway bonds worth billions of dollars in today’s money to the English bankers and rich people back in mother England. Growing up in Socialist Burma I didn’t know what exactly was a bond first. So I looked for it in the old dictionaries and finally learned what a bond really is.

“A bond is just a loan. When you buy a bond, you're lending money to the organization that issues it. The company, in return, promises to pay payments to you for the length of the loan.

How much and how often you get paid interest depends on the terms of the bond.  These interest payments are usually doled out semi-annually, but they can also be sent out annually, quarterly or even monthly.

When the bond reaches the date of maturity, the issuer repays the principle, or original amount of the loan.”
So to sell the English their railway bonds American Railway companies must have capacity to pay regular interest payments to their prospective bond holders. But laying thousands and thousands of miles of tracks into the wild interior is a very expensive work.

Till the time the tracks are laid and the locomotives built and the railways start running and money flowing in from carrying freights and passengers the American Railway companies then had no capacity to pay the regular interest to their English bond-holders.

So, How did US Railways manage to borrow money?

An old US railway bond.
But the American railway barons didn’t need to worry too much as their United States Congress came in and solved that tricky money problem. Even though America as a very-young nation then had absolutely no money to build their own railways early Americans had plenty of so-called un-settled land.

Almost 90% of North American continent had been already settled for tens of thousands of years by the native Indian tribes, but the late arrivals from Europe the white Americans - who settled only about 10% on then the heavily populated east coast on the Atlantic coastline - had refused to accept their claims and US Congress declared the whole continent vacant and claimed the Indian land as publicly-available land for settlement.

Settled by whom? Not Asians, not Indians, not Mexicans, but only the white Europeans!

Yes, the racist US Congress wanted only white Europeans to settle their new America and to just do that they had to wipe out the hostile Indians first with the active cooperation of the railways companies.

So the US Congress happily granted the railways companies millions of acres of fertile Indian land along their proposed railway tracks and sent US Army to clear the Indians for the railroad beachheads. The rest the railways companies had done themselves with the help from new settlers they themselves brought in on their trains.

US Land Bank

Following is a good explanation of the way US Congress resettled the Indian land with new arrivals, impoverished landless peasants from the Western and Eastern Europe in the whole 19th century.

“After the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution of the United States for the United States of America, the United States Treasury Department was placed in charge of managing all public lands until 1812 when the General Land Office was created to assume that duty.

In accord with specific Acts of Congress, and under the hand and seal of the President of the United States of America, the General Land Office issued more than 2 million land grants made patent (land patents) passing the title of specific parcels of public land from the nation to private parties, etc.

Some such land so granted had survey costs, etc. that had to be paid and the patentees paid those fees for their land in cash, others homesteaded a claim, and still others came into ownership via one of the many donation acts that Congress passed to transfer public lands to private ownership.

Whatever the method, the General Land Office followed a two-step procedure in granting a patent. First, the private claimant went to the land office in the land district where the public land (section) was located. The claimant filled out "entry" papers to select the public land, and the land office register (clerk) checked the local registrar records to make sure the claimed land was still available.

The receiver (bursar) took the claimant’s payment, because even homesteaders had to pay administrative fees. Next, the district land office register and receiver sent the paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington. That office double-checked the accuracy of the claim, its availability and the form of payment. Only then did the General Land Office issue a patent relative to the particular land in question and sent the same on to the President for his signature.”

Initially-moneyless US Land Office basically was a land bank owning the so-called unsettled land in the whole West. And the land bank made money by subdividing that unseen-land and selling (mostly mortgaging out) individual blocks of land to the settlers. Typically only ten dollars first instalment and four more ten dollars for approximately 500 acres of land mortgaged over five years. Only condition attached was that the land owner must grow a crop or build a homestead on his land within a year.

US Railways Invented Very First CDO: Railway Bonds

2008 Financial Collapse in US and the rest of the developed world was said to have been caused by the so-called new financial instruments the CDOs – Collateralized Debt Obligations. CDO basically is a bond based on many home mortgages as collateral and the corresponding mortgage payments as interest payments.

Even though every so-called expert claimed the CDOs are the newly-invented financial tools, the US Railways companies invented CDOs in the 19th century. They mortgaged out the free land around their railway corridors granted by the US Congress to the settlers the same way US Land Office mortgaged out to the free settlers and homesteaders.

The railway companies then repackaged the mortgaged land and the mortgage payments by the  settlers as railways bonds and sold them to the English. The very first CDOs were born back then.

But to make the whole grand scheme work railway companies needed to find the settlers first and then bring them in to settle their lands. Their problem was unless the Europeans were really down and out on their lucks they wouldn’t be too inclined to abandon their ancestral homes, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and work some Indian-infested land middle of nowhere called America.

But the American Railways Barons were called the Robber Barons for no small reason and they had cunning schemes to bring the whole Europe onto their knees and create countless millions of totally broke white Europeans so desperate to abandon their ancestral homes, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and work some Indian-infested land middle of nowhere called America.

And their not-so-secret weapon was wheat! Plenty of cheap wheat grown and harvested out of dirt-cheap American lands and grossly flooded on the European markets that caused the collapse of Europe main industry and eventually the collapse of European banking system.

Same Ship for Wheat Exports to Europe and Human Imports Back

US Export-Wheat unloading.
The newly-built locomotives and box cars running on newly-laid rail tracks brought millions of tons of American wheat from the interior - settled by the Scottish and Irish and English immigrants - to the east coast ports like New York and Boston.

From there the wheat was exported to Europe by the huge steam ships owned by the very Railway companies. Once these cargo ships finished unloading their cargo at any European port the cargo holds were refitted for cheap human cargo the white settlers from Europe.

The human cargoes were immigrants already signed-and-sealed by the agents of the US Railways. It would typically cost only ten US Dollars for the across-the-Atlantic and the continuing train journey to the Promised Land in the wild west of the United States.

In the 19th century the growing of high-valued wheat and milling it into many different grades of quality flour was the main industry in Europe except England where the industrial revolution and invention of steam engine had created the whole new manufacturing industry based mainly on cheap US cotton from America’s South.

The sudden flooding by the cheap US wheat basically collapsed that wheat industry of Europe first and eventually causing the collapse of European banking system overly extended on that sole industry. And the final result was the creation of the massive underclass of landless and penniless Europeans.

Millions and millions of them had no choice but crossed the Atlantic as the cheap settlement offers from the commissioned-agents of US railway companies became so-attractively irresistible.

They arrived at their promise lands, settled, killed native-Indians, and grew more wheat and thus stoked further the insatiable fires of the vicious circle that brought them to the United States in the first place. Till the Indians and the millions of buffalos were forever gone and every square-inch of the land was occupied.

The rest is the modern history of United States as the American descendants of those migrants later wrote it.
European immigrants embarking on empty wheat-export ships back to US.
Burma’s Land Reform and Ongoing Civil War

Our Burma could learn a lesson or two from that part of US history. Like United States in the 1800s Burma has plenty of unsettled lands on the vast hilly fringe but the main Irrawaddy valley is densely over-populated.

And these so-called unsettled lands – even though vigorously claimed by various armed ethnic groups like KIA (Kachin Independence Army), SSA (Shan State Army), and KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) – are where all the insurgent armies and gangs of terrorists and dacoits roam not unlike the warlike nomadic tribes of native-Indians in the wild west of USA.

Since time immemorial peoples have been shifting from places to places for a greener pasture and Burmese are no exception. But the insurgency has been a serious deterrence in Burma. What a very long civil war has created over last 60 years is continuous flow of refugees into the towns and cities while the vast fertile lands deemed unsafe to work lie fallow.

Burmese military sees that problem since the early 1950s and tries to repair it by building government-funded and army-guarded model resettlement villages all over Burma especially in the most sparsely-populated Kachin State. The bureaucracy doing that particular job is called People Manpower Placement Department (Pyi-thu Loat-arr Nay-yar-cha-htar-yay in Burmese and acronym Pa-la-na) under the Ministry of Interior. 
Population density projection map (Big Fat Arse) of Burma.
Militarized Model Villages on Ledo Road

I discovered that fact accidentally as a sixteen-year-old boy soldier when our 60 strong group of graduating boot-campers were thrust into one such Pa-la-na village on the famous Ledo Road middle of the night on our long 20 miles march as part of our training.

The village was populated mostly by former army soldiers both Kachin and Burmese and they had their owned armed militia unit defending the village against the regular raids by the KIA.

Ledo Road and Burma Road connecting Burma & China.
Later I discovered more Pa-la-na viallges along the Ledo Road as we patrolled the sparsely-populated region. Land was so much abundant the native Kachins didn’t even need to establish stationery farms as they practiced the slash-and-burn cropping system.

So army took the good accessible land by the Ledo Road and allocated free to former soldiers if they were willing to populate the army-built model settlement villages. Our army was so unimaginative these new resettlement villages had no proper names but Pa-la-na (1) or Pa-la-na (2) or something serial like that.

But the brute KIA was so upset by the Burmese army-sponsored incursion into their territory they regularly raided these resettlement villages. The tragic beginning of this post was the real story of one such Kachin-only Pa-la-na village just beyond Ledo Road.  

So I do not think that top-down militarised approach of settlement villages does work as even after 40 odd years that region is still unsafe, unstable, and unattractive for new settlers like land-starved Burmese down from the neighboring Sagaing Division.

My own land-starved Burmese Experience

My (ex-army officer/ex-Communist) father came out of a very poor Burmese village called Short Tamarind Tree (Ma-gyee-bin-buu) in the draught stricken Ma-hlaing Township of generally miserable Middle-Burma. I always think he was so sick of his impoverished hard-working life he ran away and joined the BIA (Burma Independence Army) at a very young age of 14 in 1942.

The bloody village was so poor and primitive even at 1984 the village had not a toilet and to shit one had to do it outside in the bushes. Anyway make the story short, in 1984 my grandmother his widowed-mother died and I was basically forced to attend the cremation of her remains at her village.

My mother told me that, since My father passed away in 1980 and he was the eldest son, I the eldest son of my father had to be there to witness the cremation as the tradition demands. The village is about 500 miles from Rangoon where I lived then and the journey required two trains to get there. But I went and as soon as I arrived there two days later I soon realised I was required to participate in the biggest land transfer the large village had ever seen in its history.

My great-grand father was one of the founding chiefs of the village and because of him my grandma was the biggest land owner of the village. She owns about 500 acres almost 20% of the total land owned and worked by the villagers. She also owns a lucrative groove of about 100 productive toddy-palm trees. She was the richest woman of that dirt-poor village.

Already Sub-divided Clan’s Land

Of course all her fields and toddy-palm trees had been slowly sub-divided and worked by ten or more children of her as they became adult with their own families with ten or more kids. But she was still the traditional owner, I thought. But I was wrong as I soon found out I was the legal owner of all her properties.

They cremated her on a high funeral pyre next day after my arrival. That afternoon after the funeral service at the village monastery the whole clan sans the children (there might be at least 100-110 of them) sat down cross-legged on the timber floor of the two-stories big brick house of my one uncle who was also the Chairman of Village Peoples’ Council (aka) the village chief.

Only there they explained to me why I was needed there. They said I was the legal and traditional owner of the clan’s land, and I was to sign away all my land and toddy-palm trees among them brothers and sisters of my late father.

As a village tradition when my grandfather died just after the big war all the land and any other productive assets like toddy-palm trees were inherited by my father as the eldest son. But my father’d refused to come back and work the land and his siblings had been working the land with my father’s consent since.

After my father’s death in 1980 I became the owner of all his land as the eldest son of my father. But nobody never told me that. And while my nana was still alive the clan treated her as the nominal owner and they had been fine for a while. Now she was dead and they were in a possible legal trouble.

Family Plots are Getting Smaller and Smaller

Problem of land-ownership in semi-Socialist Burma at that time was that theoretically all the farmland is owned by the state, but the rights to work the land is guaranteed to the tenants. He or she who works the land also has right to transfer the land to next of kin but no right to sell it. The Village Councils are to keep the accurate records of who traditionally owns and who works the particular block of village’s farmland.

Plots are getting smaller and smaller as the
family lands get divided among siblings.
The clan knew of my imminent overseas trip without definite return date and they were worried if I didn’t come back they would end up with huge mess of which brother or sister owns which sub-plot of clan’s considerable land. Even the blood brothers could kill each other for much smaller plots.

My uncles and aunts had already worked out who got what and the legal documents already prepared and what I needed to do was just sign the papers. Since I had absolutely no attachment to the village and the land, I didn’t say a thing there and just signed away my 500 acres of land and 100 toddy-palm trees to them. Then I came home and since then I have never been there again in my life.

The tragedy then was that 500 acres large parcel of land had become ten 50 acres sub-plots of farmland belonging to ten brothers and sisters. That day I was wondering what would happen once their 100 odds children became adult and needed their own plot of land. I knew since then the family land would be subdivided again and again till there is no land large enough left to be sub-divided.

And that is what is happening right now in my grandma’s village as more than two-third of village’s young adults are now being forced to leave the village and work any manual jobs in city as there are no land for them to work on in  their own village. Proper Burma as a whole is tightly occupied and nowhere else to expand.

Nowadays most of my 100 odd nephews and nieces are hopelessly working in Rangoon and Mandalay. I still believe if they are given a good piece of land in a safe environment anywhere they will definitely take the opportunity as they are basically the rural people not city people.

(Some of them are now even talking about coming to Australia and farm. Unfortunately Australia basically is still a racist country and as such they are willing to bring in desperate white farmers fleeing places like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe - former Rhodesia - and South Africa into Australia, but not dark-skinned, brown-faced Burmese farmers.)

Too Many Land Disputes and Peasants are Revolting

Landless-farmers blocking trucks from the Copper Mine.
Let-pan-daung Copper Mine riots and the recent peasants riots in Ma-U-Bin are the results of that enormous land-squeeze Burmese rural population has been facing for some times now.

At least 10 millions out of present 50 millions Burmese farmers urgently need a space to farm  and unless Burmese government responds quickly another major uprising like 1930 Saya San Rebellion will blow up in the government’s face and Burmese army will have to kill their own people again in thousands like in that failed 8-8-88 uprising.

Burma needs to act and Burma must act quick before too bloody late!

Policeman wounded and later died in a violent  attack by
rioting landless peasants in Ma-U-BIn (Feb 2013).
Burma Must Start a Nation-wide Land Resettlement Program

Burma must follow the US 19th century practice and the Union Government must establish a General Land Office which will take over all the crown land or unsettled-public-land (from all the State and Divisional governments) and mortgaged out cheaply to any citizen of Burma.

Say a fixed price of 900 kyats (about 1 US$) an acre and the basic mortgage should be set at interest free with 10% down payment and the rest over ten years with a strict (evict-able if not fulfilled) condition of growing a crop within two years or establishing a homestead within a year.

Another strict condition must be the loophole-proof state-ownership of natural resources underground. The private owners should have only the agricultural and water and grazing rights.

Burma do not need a great deal of money to do just that. Government will even make money, a great deal of money out of it. Sell so-called Burma Bonds based on the regular mortgage payments from the new landowners. And use that money to develop new infra-structure to develop more hilly lands.

Chittagong Hill Tracts in Eastern-Bangladesh.
What Burma do need is strong political will to march ahead with the land reform program. There are examples in other countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh two massively-overpopulated nations in our region.

Indonesia forced tens of million of her peasants from the over-crowded Java to other islands. It has moved at least 50 million people to other sparsely-populated islands.

Our Islamic neighbour Bangladesh has quietly forced its 160 million Muslims into the vast predominantly-Buddhist Chittagong Hill Tracts with such atrocious vigour within last 20 years the whole area is now 97% Muslims and the ethnic Buddhists are nearly extinct.

The Bangladeshi resettlement program is so bloody effective Bengali-Muslims are not only overwhelming their own native-Buddhists they are also spilling over the neighboring Burma. Of course, Muslims breeding like jack-rabbits is a big help for the program too.

That sort of similar resettlement program large-scale in Burma will clear the jungles, flatten the mountains, reduce drastically the population in Proper-Burma, and most important wipe-out all the ethnic insurgencies along the way like what early Americans did to the native Indians or what Bangladeshi Muslims have been still doing to their ethnic Buddhists.

Population Projection Maps of Burma (From  views-of-the-world WWW site).