Seminar on “Dispossession and Perpetual Mobility amidst Agrarian Change in Myanmar Today”

Combining rural and urban fieldwork of Myanmar with consideration of historical changes in the political economy, Dr Elliott Prasse-Freeman focuses on displacement as a perverse state ‘development’ strategy in which labourers help transform environments.

Myanmar Studies Programme

Monday, 2 December 2019 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a seminar on “Dispossession and Perpetual Mobility amidst Agrarian Change in Myanmar Today”. Dr Elliott Prasse-Freeman, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology in the National University of Singapore, delivered a lecture on the implications of land dispossession in rural Myanmar on our understanding of mobility. The event was attended by more than 20 people from the diplomatic corps, the civil service, educational and research institutes, and the public.

Dr Elliott Prasse-Freeman (right) emphasized the rural to rural migration in Myanmar, where people moved from one temporary work to another. Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr. Prasse-Freeman began his lecture with a brief history of migration and mobility in Myanmar. He demonstrated that unlike popular conceptions that rural people are migrating to the urban area, Dr. Prasse-Freeman emphasized the rural to rural migration in Myanmar, where they moved from one temporary work to another. This form of seasonal labor illustrates the precarity of finding employment in cities while also highlighting the fact that villages can no longer support their inhabitants. He then underlined three historical political-economic modes where mobility is understood as a mode of (1) flight during the dynastic era, (2) production during the colonial and Myanmar military era, and (3) deterritorialization without reterritorialization in the current and possible future period in Myanmar. Through the historicization and theorization of mobility in Myanmar, Dr. Prasse-Freeman showed the significance of using the Myanmar example in order to highlight cases of late development in the global south. He also emphasized the importance of recognizing the exploitation of bodies, albeit in a different form.

Dr. Prasse-Freeman then discussed about the implications of debt and land dispossession on social relations in Myanmar. As the military consolidated its control of the state, there were various instances of violent land grabs supplemented by the market’s natural displacement. The commodification of lands which become an object of investment, destabilized previous understandings of land ownership and social ties to the land. The rather abrupt introduction of peasants into ownership society led to many selling these lands to investment speculators. This, Dr. Prasse-Freeman suggested, was due to the (1) inability of farmers to comprehend the investment logic, and/or (2) lack of capacity and resources to capitalize on their lands.

Drawing from his ethnographic fieldwork materials, Dr. Prasse-Freeman showed how the changing political economic regime affects the social relations and ties that farmers or land owners have to their lands. Previously, banks recognized the need of farmers to work on their lands in order to ensure the productivity of lands and repayment of loans. However, the change in bank practices such as compounding interests and shorter loan periods, leave farmers insolvent and incapable of not only feeding their families, but also in paying off their debts. As a result, farmers are dispossessed of their assets (i.e. their lands), which are then reallocated to another individual. This new logic of land commodification severed the ties that traditionally linked owners to their lands which in turn increased the precarity of rural lives.

In discussing the impact on debt and land dispossession, Dr. Prasse-Freeman highlighted the implications on changing senses of responsibility for the poor. Instead of the horizontal and vertical bonds that used to characterize rich-poor social relations, agrarian and policy changes force farmers into monopsony, where people can only sell their products to a single buyer who provided them with the loans. Dr. Prasse-Freeman argued that such phenomena only serve to transform farmers or land “owners” into de facto wage labor since they lost the freedom to sell their products to others. Dr. Prasse-Freeman exemplified this point through various examples such as the CP (Choern Pakard) maize contract farming in the Shan states, where farmers receive inputs on credit but are forced to sell them back to CP Group, Asia’s largest and most prominent agro-food/feed corporation. Dr. Prasse-Freeman then argued that rather than fixing debt as being mutually beneficial – as was the case in rural Myanmar, it effectively resulted in the displacement of people.

Some of the participants at the seminar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The 45-minute presentation was followed by a dynamic question-and-answer session with the audience. Discussions revolved around the implications of debt on social ties (particularly on monopsony in Myanmar), land title ownerships, ecological impact, and urban migration. There was also a lot of interest among members of audience regarding the state-society relations, in regard to the issue of landgrabs and the precarity of rural Myanmar people. Questions were asked regarding Myanmar’s regime’s disinterest (or apparent lack of) in the poor; the forms of political resistance rural and affected people undertake; and the role of Buddhist monks in effecting social change – for better or worse. Beyond Myanmar, audience members also sought to draw parallel to other countries in the region, such as with Malaysia’s palm oil industries in terms of its population to land ratio, in order to think through Myanmar’s socio-economic experiences and forms of dispossession.