Agriculture is the backbone of the Myanmar economy. Agriculture makes up 32 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), 56 percent of employment, and 21 percent of exports. Not only does it contribute extensively to the country’s GDP, but the agricultural sector is essential for farmers’ income, poverty reduction, and employment.
In the context of both a fragile state in the political liberalization process of 1987- 2020 and a failed state following the 2021 military coup, the supply chain cycle of Myanmar is now entirely unpredictable. The restrictions, constraints in transforming raw materials to end goods in the local supply chain cycle, and market uncertainties and price volatility caused by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, combined with the coup in 2021, has created a crisis in Myanmar’s food supply chain. The coup exacerbated the already fragile condition of the agricultural sector, leading to a complete collapse.
Myanmar was the biggest rice exporter in Asia and is also known for the production of sugarcane, pulses and dry beans. Ethnographically, the survival, culture and tradition of ethnic people, both majority and minority groups, connect with their lands. The lands, which were damaged during the conflicts and dispossessed under military rule, posed a lot of questions about how to reconcile people’s sufferings, values embedded in their lands, and livelihoods relying on agriculture.
This article aims to shed light on the farmers’ struggles before and after the military coup by conducting interviews with four people from the Sagaing region, which is one of the prominent conflict-affected areas in post-coup Myanmar.
Government’s policies and oppression against farmers
Successive governments in Myanmar have consistently mentioned the important role of agriculture in contributing to the country’s prosperity despite ungenuine political will and ineffective policy measures.
The country is often misconceived as a “socialist state” under the rule of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (1962-1988). Under the BSPP’s so-called Burmese Way to Socialism, the BSPP regime practised a state monopoly on the domestic and export markets and a compulsory procurement quota for the permitted crops associated with the coercive rule. For the cultivation of non-paddy crops such as beans and pulses, the punishment for breaking the rules was the death penalty.
Despite the fact that the regime consistently claimed their commitment to the well-being of the farmers and workers, prosperity was distributed amongst the military generals and their associated elites at the expense of farmers. In this regard, it is important to highlight the political game of the BSPP to achieve mass support under their pseudo-socialist ideologues. In fact, the BSPP didn’t practise socialism truly and the workers-and-peasant democracy was never their priority.
U Myint, a farmer we interviewed, remembered his experiences under the BSPP regime:
“We, farmers, got exploited by the quota system of General Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Programme Party. The quota system was oppressive forcing the farmers to sell the rice quota determined by the government at a fixed price. The price was unreasonably low whilst we were permitted to retain the portion which was meant for our own consumption.”
Farmers were not allowed to choose the seeds to cultivate as they preferred under their rule.
From 1988 onwards, partial economic liberalization steps were carried out which included opening the floor to foreign direct investment, relaxing the regulations in the agricultural, timber, and fishery sectors, and prompting a transition to private sector involvement. In light of the agricultural sector, price controls were eliminated, and subsidies for agricultural resources were reduced by the government. However, rice export was still monopolized by the state.
Peasants’ well-being did not improve significantly under the neo-liberal economic projects implemented by the successive governments.
U Myint also reflected on his experience throughout the political transition period:
“Under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USPD) government, our well-being hasn’t improved. We didn’t get any agricultural inputs such as fertilizers provided by the government. When the National League for Democracy (NLD) government came to power, I thought that our lives somewhat improved and we gained some support from the government. We were able to choose the seeds to cultivate freely. In our area, Shwe Bo region, we mainly cultivate the “Paw San” seeds.”
Nevertheless, farmers’ rights to restitution of lands, which were confiscated under the junta rule, were left unattended despite some policy measures imposed by the civilian government. The market liberalization practices that undermined the livelihoods of rural dwellers from different sectors included the expansion of extractive sectors, development of special economic zones (SEZs), and other projects. These urban projects imposed by the neo-liberal economic agenda, left the farmers to contend with land dispossession, debt, and poverty resulting in migration to other countries mostly to Thailand, and others such as Malaysia, China, Singapore, and others as well as the urban areas.
U Myint and Ko Htut, another farmer who is also a social worker, report:
“Normally, we consumed the labour of our family members for the cultivation. We had to hire the villagers as waged labourers during the harvesting and threshing process. These days, one of the major challenges encountered is the scarcity of labourers. People are more interested to work in urban areas and other countries where they can earn higher wages. For the farmers, we cannot compete for the price resulting in the production process being delayed.”
In a report produced by World Bank, increasing costs associated with rice production, lack of access to bank loans, and extremely low prices after the harvest period were the major challenges encountered by the farmers.
“Unlike the wealthy farmers who possess both land and capital, those of us who don’t own the capital have to take loans from private lenders and distributors of the agricultural products at a 7 percent interest rate. Since we don’t receive subsidized credits or support from the governments, we have to face terrible challenges. When the time comes, we have to sell them our products at their predetermined price. Although we realize that we are being exploited, we get no other options,” the participants said.
In post-coup Myanmar, farmers were impacted by the subsidized farm credit system collapsing, skyrocketing prices of agricultural inputs, and intensified conflicts
“Under the rule of SAC (State Administration Council), we no longer receive any subsidized farm credit. Everything gets ruined,” U Myint said.
Supply chain cycle and food security in post-coup Myanmar
In the years following the military coup, the conflicts are escalating in areas like Karenni State, Chin State, Taninthayi Region, and newly-affected areas in the dry zone such as Sagaing, Magway, and Mandalay. The dry zone is one of the largest areas for rice production in Myanmar.
The escalation of the conflicts in major rice production zones largely impacts food security by affecting the functioning of food value chains, food prices, and access to food. These consequences became a huge burden for the farmers by dragging them down in an unfair and exploited supply chain cycle, which is now under the control of brokers, corporates, and cartels. The cartels are formed with rich farmers and traders and they are aligned with the interests of the government. These cartels/associations existed prior to the coup but the exploitations and suppression intensified following the coup.
“These associations are very powerful and aligned with the governments. We can only get the seeds from these groups,” explain respondents. “Usually, we don’t want to be members of these groups because of high member fees and other requirements. As a result, only the rich farmers are in there.”
After the 2021 military coup, the country became a “failed state” within a few months, marked by increased restrictions, escalations of violence, a humanitarian crisis threatening food security, and the worst outcomes of economic instability. This political situation especially impacted the agricultural sector, causing disruptions in short and long-run production functions, access to land and capital for cultivation, and market mechanisms.
The worst scenario is losing their lands during the conflicts as the military intentionally burned down some of these areas. It is very significant that the dry zone became one of the major conflict-affected areas after 2021, where a high percentage of the production relies on the agricultural sector. The mass atrocities committed by the military within two years and their four-cuts strategy, which include burning down the paddy fields and villages, dragged these areas into a total crisis. This is threatening not only the people from those areas but also the country’s whole population as well as the resistance forces.
Respondents highlighted the tactic of burning paddy fields as “ very intentional.”
SAC operates by burning the paddy fields and villages during the critical phases of the production process, such as seedling, fertilization, pest and disease control time, and harvesting periods, which causes huge damage to the crops easily. The farmers cannot go to the fields due to atrocities committed by military operations for their safety and security. These incidents inflict big unforeseen changes in farming resulting in early or delayed cultivation and harvesting. Sometimes, their scarce agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and nutrients are lost during military operations. Farmers in these areas have been facing tremendous challenges whilst farming resulting in no income and detrimental impacts on their survival.
U Myint explains,“Farmers’ challenges of access to loans became more restricted in the dry zone after the coup. With the loss of lands and lack of access to capital, crop production is tiresome work. However, we are still farming for our survival. We do not have other livelihood options. And the lands in my village are not burned yet, but we don’t know when ours will be next. We are living with such kind of insecurity and concerns.”
In Ko Htut’s village, the SAC burned down the paddy fields and his family lost their lands during their military operations.
Ma San, not only a farmer but also a woman activist from Sagaing, who has strong knowledge of food security issues said, “Farmers lost their lands due to intentional burnings operated by the military junta. In the meanwhile, the prices of basic food are increasing and becoming unaffordable day by day. This is totally a tragic era. Sadly, this is what we have been going through in our Sagaing region after the coup.”
Farmers as an oppressed class
The struggles of farmers in the agricultural sector are influenced by social status, successive governments’ selective policy measures and the infrastructure projects they implemented, the country’s long-lasting conflicts, and the military coup.
Although there are some rich farmers who own both farming land and capital, farmers like U Myint have to rely on private lenders at high-interest rates for the capital required for crop production. Landless farmers also have to borrow land from wealthy landowners. Being in recurred debts with loans by private lenders, farmers have to sell their products at the lowest rates whilst they have to purchase these products for their own consumption at increased prices. Faermers are not only affected by the exploited prices in the production process but also vulnerable to the effects of political and economic instability.
Farmers’ struggles were ignored by the successive military governments including the civilian government, who mainly focused on urban projects under neoliberal economic agenda and ignored the unequal distribution of resources between rural and urban areas. The associations or cartels, formed in the interests of the government with rich farmers and traders, failed to safeguard the farmers’ interests and prosperity. Farmers’ labour is central not only to the capital accumulation of the country but also to the whole population’s livelihoods and food security. Therefore, the struggles of farmers shaped by social stratification, oppressive rule, neoliberal policies of the governments, and post-coup conflict must be given more attention.
U Myint, Ko Htut, and Ma San are pseudonyms for the people who were interviewed for this story.
Photo credit: Frontier Myanmar
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate