A Kachin heritage group has regained an important piece of the ethnic group’s ancestral land, lost for nearly six decades, after winning an unprecedented legal battle in late August.
“This land concerns the entire Kachin people because of its historical significance,” said Doi Bu, the lawyer for Wunpawng Htunghkung Hpung Ginjaw (WHG), (in English: Kachin Tradition and Cultural Association), which has been fighting for its return for years.
Under the British, the Kachin United Company Ltd owned the 7,200-square-metre feet plot in Myoma Ward in Myitkyina, but after Gen Ne Win’s coup in 1962, his Revolutionary Council banned the Kachin company and it lost control of the property a few years later, Doi Bu told KNG.
However, the government did not build on the land, so technically it still belonged to the WHG and could be leased for many years. At the same time, she said that “some of the socialist leaders wanted it for themselves and also for some of the businesses that had set up there.” After it was disputed, the Than Shwe regime seized it again in 1990.
In 2009, the Kachin United Company Ltd began to re-establish itself and handed over the original land deeds to a land management committee. “I told them that we will try (to get the land back) and we asked lawyer Doi Bu to help us with this legal battle,” the WHG chairperson at the time told KNG, asking not to be named. Doi Bu said it was an arduous process to track down all the necessary documents for the court.
In 2012, under Thein Sein administration, the lawyer, chairperson, Duwa Hpauwa Zau Gam, another former company representative and a third leader applied to the House of Representatives for the return of the land, which is called Pyithu Hluttaw in the Burmese language.
Doi Bu asked the House of Representatives to recognise the cultural value of the land to the Kachin nationalities and to make the companies currently operating on the land leave once it’s returned but they were unsuccessful.
When Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took power in 2015, the WHG chair and Doi Bu submitted another application, and this time the new government agreed that the land should be shared by all of the Kachin peoples and granted a lease until 18 April 2022.
In 2019, “some of the (12) shopkeepers agreed to move, but others refused, so we’d had to file charges against them,” Doi Bu said. Now that the military regime has also agreed that the land belongs to the Kachin public, the shops have two months to dispute the decision in the Union-level court or they have to leave.
According to the court documents, Mar Tha, the owner of Zee Ohn herbal shop, Hpauyu Hkawng Shawng, who runs Taiyin medicine shop, and Toe Toe Aung of Thwe bookshop have been trying to gain control of the land on which their shops are located since 1987.
Lasee Hting Nan, the owner of Nget Min Nyi Naung Kachin medicine shop, and Lazein Naw, the owner of Sapadatha shop, have agreed to the move but have asked the WHG’s land management committee to allow them to return if they decide to lease the land to businesses in the future.
Other businesses still operating on the property include Zee Ohn herbal shop owned by Mar Tha, two Babu Gyi glass shops by Khin Ma Ma and Yee, Ko Ko Naing’s tea shop, Zaw Htay’s tea shop, a medicine and medical equipment shop run by San Jay, Malizup Tape and CD shop owned by U G. Bawm Cham and a food kiosk run by Aye Myat Soe.
“This is a historic piece of land for the Kachin people, which belonged to the company before Burma’s independence (from England)…this place is a testament to Burma’s independence movement and why we fought to get it back. This is for our future generations,” says the former WHG chairperson.
Brief History of the Land
After meeting with Gen Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s late father, and the British rulers, the colonial government offered the land to the Kachin in 1946. Ethnic leaders discussed political matters at this site before attending the Panglong Conference in 1947, which led to the formation of the Union of Burma.
Slg.Kareng La and other Kachin leaders formed the Kachin United Company Ltd and leased plots of land to companies at a monthly rate of 7 kyats in 1964. In the same year, Ne Win abolished the company.
Doi Bu claimed the land belonged to all Kachin and WHG is working out a policy to manage it so that everyone benefited. However, there have been complaints on social media that the regime has returned the land as a political ploy. Some are suspicious of the WHG leaders’ ties to the military.
Hkyet Hting Nan is currently the chair of the Kachin State Military Council. Htung Hpu Dagung is also affiliated with a People’s Militia Force base under the military in Putao. Doi Bu used to be the secretary of the former Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State and part of Kachin State People’s Party.
Doi Bu denied these allegations, saying the fact that the land has been returned has nothing to do with the current political situation, but is the result of the tireless efforts of her legal team, which has been working for over a decade to return the land to the people.