University of Hawai'i Press
  • Alluvial Tactics:Land Access and Control on the Ayeyarwady River

This article deals with the allocation of access to alluvial land (kaing" myei) and island (myei-nu'kyun" or kaing"kyun") on the Ayeyarwady River. Alluvial land, depicted as very fertile, is often the ground of disputes between neighboring settlements. Building on fieldwork in Pyitawtha, an island-village, I critically reflect on how inhabitants' gain access and maintain their access to these always-shifting lands. Focusing on empirical findings, I show that the ability of local inhabitants to access newly formed alluvial land does not reflect a mere grasping or seizing of opportunities, following land accretion and erosion, but reflects a tactical work of construction and maintenance of access. Tactics reviewed in this article include predatory attitudes, subtle compromise, the purchase of land rights and occasional collaboration with authorities. By navigating into the gaps and ambiguities of law application and anticipating on alterations and transformations in their physical environment, villagers preemptively deploy tactics to hold onto the land. A critical analysis of local land practices helps to develop a better understanding of the ways these unstable lands are actively turned into resources, becoming a constant site of possession and dispossession.


Ayeyarwady River, alluvial land/island, tactics, land access, control


Land access is a burning issue in Myanmar. The Law amending the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management (VFVLM) Law (2018) constitutes the most recent source of uncertainties in a long history of tenure insecurity. Land tenure regimes remain highly fragmented and the source of complex interactions, overlapping claims and rights, enabling various forms of exclusion (U San Thein et al. 2018; Hudson-Rodd and Sein Htay 2008; Scurrah, Hirsch, and Woods 2015; Woods 2011). Mark (2016) describes the context of current forms of tenure in terms of "stacked laws" with multiple layers of revoked and active regulations, superimposed rules, and negotiation arenas, generating contradictions for local actors.1 Government attempts to formalize land rights with the introduction of the 2012 Farmland Law and the VFVLM Law, although giving ground for more tenure security, sparked new frictions over land access (McCarthy 2018). Uncertainties in land status and availability open up a terrain of possibilities or "frontier" for social actors to further their claims (Rhoads and Wittekind 2018). Since 2012, land access has vested in different politico-legal institutions, including the Farmland Administration Bodies (FABs), the Committees for [End Page 37] Rescrutinising Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands, etc., that contribute in defining which land is available and for whom. For local actors, access depends on the ability to navigate into the fragmentation of political power and legitimacy (on land tenure, see also the important contribution of Boutry et al. 2017).

Alluvial lands and islands known as mye-nu'kyun" or kaing"kyun" offer a more than appropriate setting to explore local negotiations of access in context of uncertainty. Ambiguous access rights coincide, in this unstable environment, with the physical instability of land. The river constantly redraws the boundaries of land through erosion and flooding, often creating conflicts between neighboring villages (Lubeigt 1998:41–4; U Maung Maung Nyunt 2018:254–88). Alluvial lands are available for cultivation from a certain period only, usually between the months of October and June/July. Every year, farmers clear the tall and thick kaing grasses2 (Saccharum spontaneum), growing up to three meters in height and adapt their choices of crops to the changing soil texture. The alluvial landscape resembles an endless agricultural frontier that is constantly influenced by the movement of sediments, kaing grasses, and crops, but also people and (often clashing) land claims (see Lubeigt 1974, for a description of rural life in island-villages3). Farmers who depend on alluvial land cultivation for their livelihood often have disputes, even leading to crime, to continue to access "their" lands displaced by the river, leading to recurrent accusation of land encroachment by neighbors or other actors (Yeni 2007; Ko Phyo 2016) and call for new land allocation (Kyaw Ko Ko 2017; Si Thu Lwin 2014).

Of importance to farmers in island-villages is the anticipation and tracking of changes in their physical environment. [End Page 38] Land access depends on the ability to assess and respond to land movements. During my fieldwork in Pyitawtha, my interlocutors often referred to their lives as "jumping to fill-in-the blanks" (kwet'lat'hkon-pyi"hpyei'te). Owing to the constantly shifting environment, farmers often have their land eroded and have to move wherever the river offers "new" blank spaces. However, these blanks are never naturally "blanks," nor does the land naturally emerges as a "resource" which can be appropriated by means of law, custom, or convention. Blanks, which I view as the "new" land, both actual and virtual, need to be made as blanks (my informants alternatively refer to these blanks as vacant lands). Filling in the blanks involves negotiating the ground on which rights of access to these "empty" lands are allocated. In this article, I argue that this work of negotiation is conducive to the deployment of "land tactics" by local actors in order to make the case for their claims. Tactics include navigating into the fragmented land tenure regimes, by means of first cultivation, residence, encroachment, or bureaucratic allocation of access.

Building on fieldwork with rural farmers in Pyitawtha, this article examines how local inhabitants try to secure their access to land in a context of political and ecological instabilities. Pyitawtha is a village located on alluvial deposits, at the confluence between the Ayeyarwady and Toe Rivers, at the eastern4 limit of Pantanaw Township (see figure 1). The findings presented in this article are based on in-depth interviews (conducted between November 2017 and July 2019) with Pyitawtha's residents as well as villagers from neighboring settlements. Discussions with farmers—usually elders—focused on the history of land allocation from the creation of the village until now. I complemented this work by the contextual analysis of official documents and histories in relation to land, as well as interviews with land administrators, mainly at the village and village-tract level (i.e., FABs). Pyitawtha may appear, at first glance, as an ineluctably [End Page 39]

Figure 1. Shifting landscape and position of Pyitawtha Village (1988–2018). (Source: Author)
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Figure 1.

Shifting landscape and position of Pyitawtha Village (1988–2018).

(Source: Author)

eroding landscape and its inhabitants as "river nomads" compelled to move whenever their plots are threatened by erosion. These moves are, however, nothing, but natural and depend on complex dynamics of access building and maintenance, of which the official correspondence offers a critical perspective. I also conducted interviews with three officials from the Department of Agricultural Land Management and Statistics (DALMS) who have been involved in land allocation in Pyitawtha. By developing an empirical account of access negotiation, I hope to contribute to a more contextualized understanding of land access and use on alluvial lands.

Land Tactics

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (1984) posited the distinction between tactics and strategies. He [End Page 40] envisioned strategic action as the practice of relatively powerful actors making use of their position to impose a structure of the world or grid in order to stabilize local conditions. Strategies relate to the production of a demarcated space and rules of navigation through the erection of boundaries and pathways. Tactical action, in contrast, can be seen as the art of the powerless who play with the social order and "remain dependent on the possibilities offered by circumstances" (de Certeau 1984:29). Tacticians, considered as subjects to those in power, do not have their own official space, but operate into others' terrains, making use of gaps, loop-holes, and interstices, manipulating rules and grids in order to create their own space (Maigret 2000). De Certeau viewed tactics primarily as an act of poaching and resistance that remain hidden from the strategic power and could endure local stabilities. Yet, seeing strategy and tactics as respectively the domain of the powerful and the powerless tends to disregard "the relationships of complicity and process of consensus" (Napolitano and Pratten 2007; see also Mitchell 2007) between social actors who engage in power negotiations at different scales. More recently, Kyriakides (2018) emphasizes on tactics as an ability to maneuver through webs of power by a practice of alliances and political associations that lead to a blurring of the boundary between the tactical and the strategical. In this article, I engage with the notion of tactics to interrogate how alluvial land dwellers along the Ayeyarwady River navigate at an always changing land interface.

In Myanmar, the processes of land titling, registration, and state-led land reclamation have allowed the state to increase its control over land, and reconfigure conditions of access and use (Ferguson 2014). Crucially, on the ground, rules and norms are not simply imposed, but are the object of complex negotiation. Navigating into the multiple layers of access rules can be viewed as a process of tactical adjustment in which local actors can make use of legal and extralegal possibilities in order to avoid losing their claims and achieving some sense of land security. Uncertain boundaries between the eligible and the illegible, the official and the everyday, provide both [End Page 41] constraints and opportunities. In this context, access to land information appears decisive in order to figure out what is thought to be admissible and workable as evidence of land claims. For the inhabitants of island-villages, alluvial land is a basis of both survival and dominion. A group of villagers who, due to erosion, become landless and fail to regain access to new land, can simply disappear from official maps. This is the case of various village communities along the Ayeyarwady River who have temporarily or permanently run out of land after being eroded. They would then depend on other villages for access to land. The continuity of social and economic activities is consubstantial to the ability to maintain access to new land. How local inhabitants tactically maneuver relies not only on the identification of blanks, or vacant lands, and an anticipation of land erosion and accretion, but also on the crafting of potential strategies in order to reclaim or fill these "empty" lands. In this article, I view "land tactics" as the various techniques and tools by which local villagers make their claims over the "new" land, considering itsunclear status and contours.

Rules of Access to Alluvial Land

According to the 2012 Farmland Law, alluvial lands are to be distributed annually based on a rule of proximity (ni"sat'ni"kat'),5 by which the residents of the nearest village6 hold the right to occupy and use the land. At the township level, the newly created FABs are in charge of identifying the nearest villages in coordination with the village-tract level authorities. This work consists of measuring the distance that [End Page 42] separates the respective village fences/boundaries (ywa-si"yo") to the new land, excluding permanent lands (mye-yin'), sandbars (thaung), as well as kyu and kaing grasslands. These provisions give rise to difficulties of two types.

First, alluvial lands and islands are made up of different layers of soil deposits with varying qualities (age, texture, or shape) (see Gruel 20187). They hence often escape conventional binaries of new/old, permanent/impermanent, or stable/unstable land. Even distinguishing "true" alluvial islands from sandbars can be arduous. The distinction between mye-yin' and mye-nu' dates back to precolonial Burma.8 Permanent land or mye-yin' is the land, of which the size, shape, and location remain stable, although it may be prone to river submergence. By contrast, mye-nu' is the land, which undergoes yearly change due to annual flooding. As Hardiman (1912) wrote about the Chindwin River, the two types of land were administered on different grounds. Mye-yin' land was, in most cases, not divided at all, remaining in the possession of the same occupant year after year. On mye-nu' land, access was characterized by a coexistence of multiple rules ranging from annual redistribution to continuous possession by previous occupants. The Burma Land Revenue Directions (1911) and subsequent pieces of law, after the independence, have prescribed an annual allotment of impermanent or mye-nu' land.

The demarcation between permanent and impermanent land is at the discretion of the local agents of the DALMS,9 [End Page 43] and this gives them considerable power when they are called to help resolve disputes. Land identification is subject to political struggles and confusion10 (Government of the Union of Burma [GoUB] 1953–54, 1961–62; more recently see U Aye Win Oo 2018). Following the post-2012 land titling policy, it turned out that the alluvial land considered as stable or mye-yin' is liable to the distribution of Land Use Certificates (LUCs).11 In case of disputed land, it is possible to observe unstable land being registered as mye-yin' and farmers receiving land titles in order to secure access, even if the land surface proves hard to demarcate. The 2012 Farmland Law does not prescribe any criteria on how to distinguish true impermanent alluvial land and permanent land. My interlocutors at the DALMS usually referred to a minimum period of five years before labeling a land as stable/permanent. Besides, it is difficult in the case of new lands to distinguish them from kaing grassland after the recession of the river. The Burmese saying kaing"kyun"mi-kyun"kaing"mi" (the islands rely on reeds, just as reeds rely on islands) notably evidences this. My interlocutors often characterized new alluvial lands as kaing grasslands.

Second, on island-lands, village boundaries and fences are not stable. The position of Pyitawtha has for instance shifted several times due to erosion and longterm submergence (see figure 1). Some of my interlocutors have changed their location more than ten times during their lives. As access to new alluvial land is based on a rule of proximity between village units and land, the geographical position of villages [End Page 44] is decisive. In order to regain access to village land (ywa-mye), also referred as housing plots (eim-neya-kwet'), eroded villagers have to apply to the General Administration Department (GAD), under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA). Theoretically, the potential of land reclamation fluctuates with the change of village positions, something that can be another source of disputes (U Maung Maung Nyunt 2018). Besides, a village can have two or more settlements officially endowed with village land. The different geographical positions act as distinct windows for claiming access to new alluvial land. This opens considerable room for maneuvering, for both villagers and local authorities, with the latter remaining the ultimate power holder and mediator in case of land disputes.

Alluvial land easily finds an escape from categorization and delineation (see e.g., the contrast between figures 1 and 2). When new lands appear, the DALMS agents are in charge of demarcating columns of distribution (sin) and parcels (ta).12 The columns' size depends on the preference of the village administrators, and is based on the number of landless households. 13 Alluvial land is translated into a vast grid-like board on which villagers jump from one column to another following land allocation schemes. During my fieldwork, farmers often associated their lands with columns. They settle and sometimes trigger disputes through the manipulation of columns, which are translated from paper by means of landmarks, including trees and pathways. Land measurement, delineation of landholdings into columns, or the distinction between permanent and impermanent land contribute in turning the alluvial environment into an official landscape. Yet, on the ground, the unstable terrain makes slippages and ruptures inevitable. [End Page 45]

Figure 2. Illustration of the division and demarcation of the alluvial landscape. (Map collected at the Department of Agricultural Land Management and Statistics (DALMS) in 2018)
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Figure 2.

Illustration of the division and demarcation of the alluvial landscape. (Map collected at the Department of Agricultural Land Management and Statistics (DALMS) in 2018)

Gaps and interstitial spaces between official lines and the ways they are drawn and redrawn in practice constitute an expanding and conflicting space of play and possibilities. [End Page 46]

Historical Background of Pyitawtha's Land Claims

In order to understand the roots of current land claims in Pyitawtha (literally the prosperous royal country), one has to go back to the middle of the twentieth century. Following independence and tensions between government forces and the ethnic Karens, violent conflicts erupted in the Ayeyarwady Delta (U Pe Kin 1949). Kyaung Su, located in Kat Tha Win Village Tract, Pantanaw Township, was a mostly Bamar-populated village. In 1949, local insurgencies, led to the destruction of various houses by fire under the Public Order Preservation Act (GoUB 1947). According to elderly informants, the Burmese Government considered Kyaung Su and other villages in Pantanaw Township to be potential rear bases of Karen insurgent groups, who controlled most of the swamps and deepwater areas inland (see Smith 1999:262–3). Most villagers ran away, including a group of three or four families, all ethnic Bamars, which I will call the Pyitawtha group.

During the 1950–1960s, political instabilities that caused large-scale displacement and temporary abandonment of land provided an opportunity for some individuals and groups to gain independence from existing political and economic hierarchies. Alluvial islands appeared as sites of refuge for those seeking to leave the influence of previous patrons and became a common center of creation of new settlements. Disputes that arose on new lands thus reflected, in this period of lawlessness, competing land settlement claims (GoUB 1953–54). The Pyitawtha group who found refuge in Shwe Kyin Monastery, in Maubin, the district capital, moved in 1951 on a newly appearing island near Kyaung Su. The group remained in contact with its mother village, which "hosted" them and enabled them to progressively constitute their own hamlet on its land. In Thoun Eim Tan, another village in Kat Tha Win Village Tract, U Hla Aung, who was affiliated to the communist White Flag faction, made a similar move on a new island to create his own settlement. This later became the village of Gyou Hpyu Thaung (the white dove island), located south of Pyitawtha. [End Page 47]

For village communities on the riverbanks, who occupied older and more stable land, the creation of subordinate farming hamlets allowed a better occupation of space and control over land. The precise nature of rights and duties of the Pyitawtha's group toward Kyaung Su, on whose land they farmed, depends on the specific circumstances of the original grant. As told by elderly interlocutors, the land was originally within the area or domain claimed by Kyaung Su. Village elders in Pyitawtha view Kyaung Su's former headmen as their benefactors to whom they owe gratitude (kyei" zu", Pyitawtha being the debt-holder), as in patron/client relationships. Village elders use both the term allies (meik'hswei) and heritage (amwei-hpyet') to describe their relations with Kyaung Su. Land access is considered as hereditary. This proceeded through the incorporation of Pyitawtha as a fully fledged village, its progressive institutionalization with the grant of village land, and the building of its own monastery and school, something that would not occur before the mid-1960s. The grant of village land would enable Pyitawtha to access alluvial land on its own name, becoming an actor of territorialization.

Relations between mother villages and farming hamlets can turn into one of overlap (in terms of access to alluvial land). Until gaining independence, villagers in farming hamlets enjoy access to land from their mother villages. Official registration by the state provided them with the right to claim land through official channels on areas, which have been previously the exclusive domain of older villages. In certain cases, these older villages exerted more authority by insisting, for instance, on their original entitlement (kan-sa"paing-kwin' or ya'paing-kwin') to (reallocate) land. For the Pyitawtha's group, its relation with Kyaung Su was first materialized by a concession of a land domain. In 1966, as part of a new land allocation, Kyaung Su's group secured access to an area corresponding to three columns, each one measuring sixty lan14 in width (the tradition in Kyaung Su, where alluvial lands are divided into one acre plots). The Pyitawtha group received [End Page 48] authorization to work on land appearing eastward, which at the time, represented over eighty lan of cultivable land. Villagers thus generally express their rights and claims on land in terms of columns and length.

Constructing and Maintaining Land Access

The following three cases exemplify disputes and tactics over alluvial land at three different levels. The first two cases involved disputes between Pyitawtha inhabitants and farmers from other villages, which developed into a confrontation over land access. In the first case, which took place along the Pyitawtha's eastern boundary, that is, the Pantanaw– Nyaungdone township boundary, Pyitawtha residents and their neighbors contested access over a stretch of land based on different interpretations of the boundary line. In the second case, disputes between villagers within the same village tract over newly appearing land were transformed into disputes over control, history, and politics blended. The third case involved a dispute within the village community of Pyitawtha over the reallocation of village land.

Renegotiating the Eastern Boundary

First come, first served

Tensions between villagers from Pyitawtha and Chaung Kyi, located in Nyaungdone, erupted in the early 1980s when new lands, cropped up along the Pantanaw–Nyaungdone township boundary. The quarrel started out around a tract of land of over a 100 acres, bonded by the Toe River on the east (see figure 3). Land appeared gradually and the river moved further east of the original boundary line so that it soon became difficult to determine where the old riverbed used to be. Since the introduction of the Burma Land Revenue Directions (1911), the deepwater channel of the river (yei-net'kyaung) had served as the inter-village boundary. Alluvial land on a stream belonged, in theory, to the village, which was separated from it by the shallowest branch of the river. [End Page 49]

Figure 3. Pyitawtha–Chaung Kyi disputed land area.
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Figure 3.

Pyitawtha–Chaung Kyi disputed land area.

Without measuring the depth of the respective channels, cultivators from Pyitawtha, at the time landless tenants, were first in seizing the opportunity to plant crops. After clearing the land covered thickly in kaing grasses, they rapidly threw beans seed on the land. U Hla,15 a village elder [End Page 50] (yap-mi'-yap-pha'), explained that the land surface was neither truly silty nor sandy (the"hnon"mye), illustrating the fuzziness of the distinction between sandbars and alluvial lands. Beans are relatively inexpensive to plant and according to U Hla: "they yield well and do not require much care. As the village was located southwards on another island, we had to cross the river every day to access the land." Planting beans on new land is a form of inscription of claims, a flag-raising practice, which has a high degree of social visibility. As emphasized by U Hla, the land was not officially distributed and the cultivation did not aim for permanent occupation. Habitually, he said, access to these sandy-silty lands is derived annually from prior occupation, either by way of first occupancy (let'-u) or by planting first. Making the first move provides only temporary access, conditional on floods, erosion, and other villagers' claims the following year.

When the river submerged the land, signaling the next round of claims, the village leader of Chaung Kyi sought discussions with leaders from Pyitawtha. Citing officially drawn maps, he started to contest the legality of the move made by Pyitawtha cultivators on the land that he claimed as "his." In local stories, people often ascertain the township boundary by means of a piece of bamboo (bu"hmyaw") thrown into the river upstream in order to identify the river flow path. In some stories, the bamboo was replaced by a flower (beida-hmyaw") or perhaps a truck wheel (baw-hmyaw"). For others, there was nothing to be thrown except that story, which they understood as the resurfacing of a colonial practice when administrative boundaries coinciding with the river were first settled.16 In the case of Chaung Kyi's [End Page 51] village leader, it was arguably a piece of bamboo. Subsequently, the bamboo washed up on the bank south of Gan Chaung (see figure 1) indicating a silt tree, which he designated as a boundary marker. Honoring this marker, which had previously settled a case in favor of Chaung Kyi, would have logically rendered Pyitawtha villagers' claim ineligible.

The Border Hospital

By threatening to involve higher authorities in the mediation, Chaung Kyi's village leader, as presented by my interlocutors, led his Pyitawtha counterparts to accept the transfer (ahsin'h-sin'hlwe"pyaung") of twenty-five plots of land, equivalent to fifty acres to Chaung Kyi. When opposed villages concur on the proper allocation of access, costs of enforcement decrease. Pyitawtha leaders feared an escalation of the conflict and the costs of defending a position on land, which they occupied only seasonally, were simply viewed as too high. My interlocutors described themselves as mye-nu'kyun" people, very different they argue from the riverbank dwellers such as in Chaung Kyi, who have access to permanent land. They look upon them as vicious and rough (mye-nu'taw' seik'nu'te mye-yin'taw' seik-yin'te), literally on mye-nu' land, minds are soft, on mye-yin' land, minds are rough/hard. Riverbank dwellers who have access to permanent land are hence depicted as more violent and land-hungry.

The land transfer was presented to me, and at the time to other villagers, as a donation, which was said to contribute to the building of a village hospital. Although the hospital construction might have been a tangible project, it primarily served as an umbrella under which the transfer gained a social legitimacy. In order to solidify the new boundary, Pyitawtha's village leaders redistributed an additional ten acres next to the "hospital land." These lands were labeled as luggyi-sa and echo with the category of thuggyi-sa (the headman's share), which under the British colonial rule, intended to supplement the income of village headmen. Until now, it is widely acknowledged by my interlocutors that [End Page 52] when an average farmer obtains one acre of land, a village leader (who can choose the location of his plot) will receive twice that amount. Interestingly, on alluvial land, this practice finds its legitimation in the perception that luggyi-sa land is harder to take away. They serve as a sociopolitical boundary (a no-trespassing sign), which prevents outsiders from crossing onto "their" lands.

Another ten acres were redistributed as stored lands (hlaung-mye). These lands serve to raise funds for village development purpose and fall under the control of the village administration or the respective institution in charge of the village infrastructure (the school committee for the village school fund, the "go-pa-ka" for the village monastery fund). Altogether, these funds support the village activities, which on alluvial land, is part and parcel of the design of land tactics, such as when buying access through official channels. Village inhabitants or out-siders who rent the land contribute to the village fund. As part of new land allocation, village residents also have to contribute to the school or monastery fund through the payment of a fee. My interlocutors view these contributions as a moral as well as a financial obligation and the amount varies according to the degree of inclusion of the households in the village.

Imbroglio and Land Reallocation

Local arrangements in the form of "hospital land" by which one village seemingly "neglects" its own development (and the interests of its villagers) and promotes that of its neighbors is socially accepted and sanctioned. The farmers17 who [End Page 53] conceded to their exclusion from land that they considered as their own, can change in one point of time. This typically led a dissatisfied group of villagers in Pyitawtha to denounce the arrangement to the Kat Tha Win Village Tract authority. The hospital land deal waxed when part of the evicted farmers realized that the land was partly under the control of five of their village leaders. Chaung Kyi took some land out of the twenty-five plots and village-based elites in Pyitawtha retained some lands for themselves in the deal, which they rented it out to other landless tenants. The evicted farmers accused those village leaders of "eating" the land. The multiplicity of interests along these microfrontiers, where access is always fluctuating, installs an element of social suspicion. Claimants argued that the land, which lies in the territory (paing-net) of Pyitawtha, was transferred to Chaung Kyi, a practice equaling to "selling and buying," which was forbidden under the 1963 Tenancy Law. However, it is less the legitimacy of the arrangement which was contested that the redistribution of benefits among the different factions in the village. This case was perceived to be especially problematic because the village elites in Pyitawtha were accused of using some of the hospital land for themselves and their relatives. In 1986, the Village Tract authorities mandated the reallocation of the land among landless farmers in Pyitawtha.18 The new allocation shows that leaders accused [End Page 54] of selling land were authorized to conciliate in the reallocation and maintain a share on the redistributed land. The claimants continued to argue that the accused village elites were prioritizing their "own" landless. The official correspondence further indicates that rival factions in Pyitawtha continued to dispute access to the twenty-five plots until the early 1990s.19

Giving and Taking at the Western Boundary

Land speculation

In 2001, new lands appeared on the west side of Pyitawtha village near Kyaung Su. Since the establishment of the first inter-village boundary with Pyitawtha, Kyaung Su villagers have progressively extended their right to access alluvial land, from 180 lan in 1966 to 360 lan in 200720 (as discussed previously, the distance is measured from the riverbank in Kyaung Su toward the east). In 2007, the village-tract State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), citing an increased number of landless farmers in Kyaung Su, acknowledged a further extension of the boundary (see figure 4): [End Page 55]

Figure 4. Allocation of land access between Kyaung Su and Pyitawtha in 2007. (Source: Author)
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Figure 4.

Allocation of land access between Kyaung Su and Pyitawtha in 2007. (Source: Author)

The decision confers Kyaung Su with the right to work 420 lan in total, 360 lan which was divided under the previous administration and 60 additional lan, running from Yae Paw Kyi boundary to Kat Tha Win Ywar Ma boundary. For Pyitawtha, authorization to use land extends from Yae Paw Kyi boundary to 820 lan in length towards Kat Tha Win Ywar Ma (South) and any potential land after 420 lan21

According to the new territorial division, Kyaung Su's village group holds a right to access the equivalent of 420 lan of alluvial land on the river, that is, seven columns of land (one column = sixty lan in width perpendicular to the river). In 2007, Pyitawtha village was still located on the east side of [End Page 56] the Ayeyarwady River (see figure 5)22 and its residents found themselves vulnerable to trespassing on the land appearing along the new boundary with Kyaung Su. In order to secure their access, village elected leaders in Pyitawtha proceeded to a land distribution in December 2007, dividing five columns (one column = 120 lan in width) and a total of 279 plots (one plot per household). Village elders provided me with the allocation list (tan"si-sa-yin") which serves as the main proof of land distribution. According to the specifications of the Kat Tha Win SPDC (see quote above), Pyitawtha villagers could claim a right to use land over 820 lan southward from Yae Paw Kyi boundary. However, the area covered (and reclaimed) by means of the allocation list extends over more than 1260 lan from Yae Paw Kyi toward Kat Tha Win Ywar Ma. A large share of the land was, moreover, not yet apparent, or was still uncultivable at the time of the distribution. But my interlocutors in Pyitawtha stated that their territory [End Page 57]

Figure 5. Demarcation of land domains and conflicted area between Gyou Hpyu Thaung and Pyitawtha. (Source: Author)
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Figure 5.

Demarcation of land domains and conflicted area between Gyou Hpyu Thaung and Pyitawtha. (Source: Author)

[End Page 58] extended toward Kat Tha Win Ywar Ma boundary in the south, and not until 820 lan (see figure 5). Land allocation, as evidenced through the tan"si-sa-yin", serves to assert their territoriality. It indicates that the future land is not exactly blanks or empty (vacant lands), but already allocated land, in this case "reserved."


The move made by Pyitawtha's village leaders,23 that is, distributing virtual lands, proved advantageous as the land [End Page 59] progressively emerged (see figure 5). In the meantime, they obtained a new grant of village land from the Pantanaw Township General Administration, which they positioned along the new inter-village boundary with Kyaung Su (another way of solidifying a territory/domain on alluvial land; see Pyitawtha Thaung Thet in figures 5 and 6). In October 2013, the inhabitants of Gyou Hpyu Thaung laid a claim to use the land that appeared near their village and which they presented as "new" vacant land (see the dark-yellow area in figure 5). U Poe, one of the Pyitawtha village leaders, insisted that "lands claimed by Gyou Hpyu Thaung are already allocated land (lok'paing-hkwin'ya')." He continued "we have been cultivating on these lands for more than nine years now," referring to the 2007 allocation list to prove that blanks were already filled. When the land reappeared in October 2014, a group of forty-three cultivators from Gyou Hpyu Thaung quickly cleared the kaing grasses, moving in faster than Pyitawtha farmers to plant beans. Two days later, U Poe and other elected leaders (ya-eim-hmu and sa-eim-hmu) complained to the Pantanaw Township administration and accused Gyou Hpyu Thaung cultivators of trespassing on "their" land.24 The contested area includes silt lands (hnon"-mye) which can produce a very fertile rice known as mayin (irrigated). Pyitawtha leaders continued to assert that the lands are not new, but no attempt was made to define the previous state; and those who "received" land did not pretend that they were getting "their" original land. Most villagers in Pyitawtha actually do not know where their lands are. My interlocutors point to "their" land as with lottery numbers: "kadji-36," "nga-17," etc., or "my plot is located after U Hla, then if U Hla goes and takes a plot, then my turn comes," etc.

Gyou Hpyu Thaung's leaders, in turn, emphasized the customary relations between the two villages. During the [End Page 60]

Figure 6. Disputed lands between Pyitawtha and Gyou Hpyu Thaung. (Source: Author)
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Figure 6.

Disputed lands between Pyitawtha and Gyou Hpyu Thaung. (Source: Author)

socialist era (1962–1988), official instructions were to prioritize landless farmers, laborers and, generally speaking, the mass of peasants, which means including more villagers in the distribution. This implied for village groups with larger land-holdings to share land with other neighboring villages. For instance, the cultivators from the nearest village would receive only two-thirds of the land, while providing access to the remaining third to landless peasants from an adjacent village. My interlocutors in Gyou Hpyu Thaung expressed their rights to as much as one-third of the land appearing between Yae Paw Kyi Boundary and Kat Tha Win Ywar Ma boundary (around 420 lan) (see figure 6). U Chit, a former village leader in Pyitawtha did not agree:

There is no 'ya paing kwint' (entitlement) of Gyou Hpyu Thaung at all, they were not included in the inheritance (with Kyaung Su). Then, why do they claim back 300 lan? Under previous thuggyi, we (Pyitawtha) received 8 plots and Kyaung Su 54 plots. Under these 54 plots, there was some extra land that was rented alternatively to Gyou Hpyu Thaung, Pyitawtha and Yae Paw Kyi. [End Page 61] […] It was a common thing to give extra land to other villages, as land was plentiful. But this was valid only for that island.

(author's translation)

U Chit referred to a distribution of land that occurred in 1954, which he is likely to be the only one to remember. However, as a former village leader and elder, his voice remains powerful. He crafted a vision associating the landscape with a historically longstanding attachment to the land, emphasizing inheritance and casting Gyou Hpyu Thaung as trespassers. However, on November 3, 2014, the Pantanaw Township FAB decided to satisfy the demand of Gyou Hpyu Thaung villagers retroceding 300 lan from Kat Tha Win Ywar Ma boundary northward (see figure 6).25 Pyitawtha's farmers would continue to cultivate the land and the authorization to work was to be transferred by the end of 2014. This was followed by a contradictory decision by the district-level FAB, solicited by Pyitawtha, when the land reappeared in November 2015, on the basis that already distributed alluvial land (in this case in 2007) should not be redistributed.26 With the land allocation supposedly backed by the previous administration, Pyitawtha leaders successfully maintained control of the land, regulating access by Gyou Hpyu Thaung villagers.

New Players, Old Game

The dispute between Pyitawtha and Gyou Hpyu Thaung villagers is further complicated by the fact that the 2007 land allocation followed arbitrary lines. In theory, as stated by [End Page 62] my interlocutors, the land should have been distributed by embracing the curve of the riverbank in Kyaung Su. However, land delineation proceeded gradually as new land emerged. A large share of land allocated on paper had not yet appeared, and hence could not be delineated at the moment of the distribution. The demarcation of "available" lands followed practical lines taking into consideration the slopes, sandy soils, grass forests, and small waterways. This led to the creation of an interstitial space (known locally as the three meeting point) between the "true" village boundary and the de facto limit of the land in Pyitawtha (see figure 6). When lands appeared in between, landless cultivators from Gyou Hpyu Thaung and Pyitawtha claimed a right to use the lands and accused each other of trespassing. In 2017, the Kat Tha Win Village Tract administrator (VTA), citing a decision of the Township DALMS, confiscated the land (peik-thein", literally "imprisoning the land"). This theoretically prevents any-one from accessing to the land.27

My interlocutors in Pyitawtha argued that the decision is mainly the initiative of the new VTA elected in 2016, and complained to higher authorities.28 Their view coincides ironically with that of leaders from Gyou Hpyu Thaung who also accused members of the village-tract level FAB of having opportunistically retained the land for themselves. They accused them of duplicity, emphasizing publicly that they would act as game changers with Pyitawtha, while redefining part of the local land as (another) "hospital land." When I visited the area in July/August 2018, I found some landless farmers originally from Kyaung Su settling along the land. This move occurred, according to my informants, with the complicity of village-tract level authorities, who might have [End Page 63] rented and/or sold the land. This shed light on the fragility of local arrangements for access to alluvial land, which depend on the maintenance of political coalitions. The ever-changing political landscape, which I do not address in this article, can provide new spaces for land reclamation and threaten present or future access.29 Under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, calls for allocation and reallocation of land to smallholders and landless farmers30 created new opportunities for villagers to make their claims. In early 2019, the Pantanaw Township FAB decided to allocate 200 lan from the disputed lands to Gyou Pyu Thaung on the basis of a lower average cultivated area per household and a higher number of landless farmers.31

Whose tactics?

Although this article focuses on inter-village disputes, there are inevitably power differentials within villages, which also influence the deployment of land tactics. An important schism [End Page 64] in Pyitawtha occurred in 1988 (partly triggered by the hospital land case). Against a backdrop of dormant rivalry with Chaung Kyi, Pyitawtha residents who faced land erosion on their side, casted longing glances at the land that continued to reappear northward. In the village, rival elites have long competed to remain at the "center" of the political landscape. Social and economic relations rely primarily on patron–client ties based on kinship and debt bondage.32 In 1988, U Chit, who was an important figure under the socialist regime (1962–1988), initiated a move to take hold of new lands appearing northward. At the time, he said, "it was inevitable that the village would have to move as we faced erosion." The pending question was in which order the different groups within the village would move and for whose advantage.

In this case, U Chit acted as a first-mover. He negotiated the grant of new village land with higher authorities, while emphasizing the erosion in Pyitawtha. By sharing what he presented as a fair amount of betel,33 he could obtain the grant of ten housing plots, equivalent to twenty acres. U Chit named the new village settlement as Hsin Kyun (the Elephant Island), registered as a village branch (kye"ywa) of Pyitawtha at the township level. The aim of this action, he continued, was to not draw attention from Chaung Kyi, by using a different flag than Pyitawtha. Rival village elites, however, accused him of usurping land, and quickly contested, though unsuccessfully, his move at the village tract State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) [End Page 65] headquarters. Since then, Pyitawtha has consisted of two separate groups/settlements that cohabit within the village: Hsin Kyun on one side and Ywar Ma (literally, the main village) on the other.34 Under the SLORC, residents of Ywar Ma had monopolized access to political positions (a situation that still prevails nowadays).35 Some residents in Ywar Ma sometimes called the settlement as Nay Pyi Taw ya'-kwet, being a place of concentration of power, and referencing Nay Pyi Taw, the country's capital. Until recently, Hsin Kyun's group has remained in the political periphery and its residents strongly depend on the elites from Ywar Ma, notably for access to new alluvial land.

In 2015, land around Hsin Kyun was eroding. Local leaders sought for a solution for collective resettlement. As they explained, they did not receive any assistance from Ywar Ma, which was on stable land (see figure 5). Their only alternative was to bypass the village authority in order to protect their interest. Fortuitously, the preelectoral context of 2015 offered [End Page 66] them alternative sources of political patronage. Leaders from Hsin Kyun met with representatives of the Modern People Party (MPP), one of the seven political parties contesting the election in the Ayeyarwady Region, in the mid-2015. They described the situation of Pyitawtha as an eroding village and their struggle in obtaining new village land (some-thing they could initiate only with the collaboration of the village elected leaders from Ywar Ma). At the time, the MPP sought to extend its electoral basis in Pantanaw and Hsin Kyun residents positioned themselves as potential brokers. Over several months, some of them engaged in advertising the MPP program to other villagers. In exchange, the MPP took responsibility for the process of requesting village land, and dealing directly with officials from the GAD and DALMS. In the late 2015, Hsin Kyun leaders were notified of the decision to grant Pyitawtha 367 new housing plots, that is, one plot per household. This was totally unexpected by the village elite from Ywar Ma. Their first reaction was to contest the legality of the move through a letter attributed to the VTA, but the origin of which is challenged by my informants in Hsin Kyun:

It has been reported that the four persons mentioned in the letter are illegally placing housing plots on land already distributed to Pyitawtha. As such, please do not build houses without notifying the Village Tract Farmland Administration Body (FAB)36

(author's translation)

Hsin Kyun leaders tactically positioned the new village land along, and in part, beyond the Pantanaw/Nyaungdone township boundary line, offering a window for future land reclamation on both sides. The move offered a very favorable position in terms of land access, but was, however, contested by village leaders in Ywar Ma. They advised to reposition the [End Page 67] land on village-stored land, falling under their control, near the main settlement. According to my informants, they also tried to close down the new village by sticking bamboo poles into the new land to prevent further settlement. The fear was that Hsin Kyun might become a new center of gravity, which attracted other cultivators, and gave them the potential for becoming self-sufficient. At the village level, the maintenance of access to new land is consubstantial to the ability to collect fees from residents. Both developments—that of the growing autonomy of the village, and that of the widening gap between the village elite and their followers in the village—should be viewed as two sides of the same process. Hsin Kyun residents depend on the political capital of the dominant political figures from Ywar Ma and their collusion with village tract and township level officials, which act as the primary defense against oppression from other villages. In turn, the village leaders can take opportunity to become more powerful. Through its tactical move, the Hsin Kyun group members offered, however, more than a simple act of resistance. By themselves selecting the next village's position, they actively contested the tactical monopoly of the village elites in Ywar Ma, while avoiding direct confrontations, in a form of avoidance (Adas 1981).


I have presented three cases of disputes sparked off by competing claims over land. Each case shows how Pyitawtha inhabitants actively participate in the construction and maintenance of their access to alluvial land. In the first case, Pyitawtha villagers resorted to different tactics, ranging from first occupation and cultivation to land transfer. In the second case, using a piece of paper as evidence of a previous allocation, they successfully won their claims, although they remain contested. The third case highlights the emergence of counter tactics within the village strategic apparatus. By drawing on the notion of tactics, local practices of land access appear to result from both opportunistic adjustment and strategic [End Page 68] calculus. The design of land tactics can be analyzed further along three axes: the unstable politics of access; village contradictions; and jumping practices.

Unstable access

The official correspondence, which I accessed in Pyitawtha, shows that villagers jump between different modes of access in order to make the case for their claims. Even if government efforts at fixing rules and controlling the alluvial environment are not followed routinely, these attempts at control are still there, present by their relative absence. As I show in this article, in Kat Tha Win Village Tract, alluvial land has been traditionally divided between villages as fixed domains or "territories" (paing-net) through the identification of boundaries that could be renegotiated. The nearest village rule almost never entered local practices. Official letters also show that authorities at different administrative levels have a role in the production and maintenance of a legal pluralism and local (in-)stabilities, referring for instance alternatively to different pieces of law (the Burma Land Revenue Directions, the 1963 Tenancy bylaws, the 2012 Farmland Law, etc.). In the case of the dispute between Pyitawtha and Gyou Hpyu Thaung cultivators, the first decision of the Township FAB in 2014 was reversed by the district-level FAB the next year on the basis that the newly appearing lands were already distributed. Whether the disputed lands were new or old, the issue of permanent or impermanent never came into question. The allocation list provided by Pyitawtha and endorsed by higher authorities proved sufficient to delineate a domain on paper, which they tactically advance as an evidence of their claim. Changing land conditions and the fact that it is arduous for other social actors to prove that lands are not old lands previously distributed, are adeptly used by Pyitawtha leaders to continue to reclaim newly appearing land. Legal provisions perpetuate a kind of administrative fiction (distinction between mye-nu' and mye-yin', straight columns and lines, etc.) that provides a shadow terrain marked [End Page 69] by various forms of transgression. While land surveys and mapping present the alluvial landscape as an abstract space bounded with columns and lines, local arrangements show relational histories and negotiations that occur in a shared social world.

The first two cases also shed light on the precarious nature of local arrangements (hospital land transfer, preemptive land allocation, etc.) that land administrators and other actors can contest and often contribute to changing. The case of the recently formed Farmland Committees or FAB, which constitute new instances of power, is instructive. Although these committees often appear as "communication channels for referring local land conflicts to higher administrative levels" (Boutry et al. 2017), they still hold a role in the production of local (in-)stabilities in terms of land access. Official papers act, in this context, as a guarantee and a powerful argument against other claimants. The 2012 Farmland Law provides a supplementary layer of legal provisions to fill claims and potentially destabilize existing rules or customs. In Kat Tha Win, recent changes in the village-tract administration may challenge the position defended by Pyitawtha village leaders. Until now, however, they have proved to be skilled tacticians, maneuvering successfully across the uncertain legal regime in order to reinterpret and orientate the rules of the game to their own benefit. Other actors such as in Gyou Hpyu Thaung can be caught between government regulations and informal conventions, although the most recent land allocation decisions have turned to their advantage. Ribot and Peluso (2003) wrote in their theory of access that those actors can be in some cases "unable, unwilling or unsuccessful as navigating an elusive terrain." In contrast with other resource environments, conflicts and tenure insecurity on alluvial land are of a more constant nature due to the ever-shifting boundaries of the resource. The ability of Pyitawtha's villagers to deploy tactics and win their claims partly lies in the maintenance of a resource collection infrastructure that enables them to remain "mobile" and navigate into this dynamic frontier. [End Page 70]

Village contradictions

Villages constitute decisive sociopolitical units for access allocation on alluvial land. Following de Certeau's terminology, villages are strategic, being constant points of reference for new land reclamation (based on the proximity rule) and for defending already claimed, yet contested land areas. In contrast to more stable villages on the riverbanks, the erosion and repeated relocation of island-villages, such as Pyitawtha, facilitate the claiming of new lands. Villages are not socially homogenous and the distribution of benefits stemming from territorial maintenance and/or expansion (ne-chye') is a potential source of conflicts within villages. The land history in Pyitawtha shows an opposition between two main groups, Hsin Kyun and Ywar Ma which came in the context of land erosion and increased competition for access. Through their exclusive relations with land administrators and officials, village elites in Ywar Ma (sometimes referred as upward [athet'-peik] in hierarchy) have concentrated access to land information and made themselves indispensable for the defense of the village lands. The design of land tactics depends on a system of levees (stored land, contributions during new land allocations, etc.), which acts as a form of tactical infrastructure, under the control of village administrators. The maintenance of a village community is critical in order to support the land claiming infrastructure. However, as villagers have their plots eroded at different paces, asymmetry necessarily occurs in relation to land access allocation. Those who have access to more stable land can also accumulate capital surplus and are less dependent on new land distribution. In the present day, Hsin Kyun residents appear to depend on Ywar Ma leaders to renew their access. Direct confrontation by, for instance, refusing to contribute to the village development fund can be risky, as people who do so may be disfavored in future land allocation plans. But the reciprocal is, to a certain extent, valid in the sense that when facing a powerful common competitor, village leaders have to make the whole village community contribute to land [End Page 71] claiming efforts. This leads to complex relations of conflict/unity and contradiction/alignment. Overall, the very disunity between Hsin Kyun and Ywar Ma groups may have paradoxically been key to the village's proficiency in successfully maintaining access to new land. By and large, they attempted to move to new land by successively presenting evidences of an eroding landscape that they constantly refabricated according to their immediate needs. Dividing the village into two geographic positions provided them with more evidences of erosion and potential ways for grasping new land.

Jumping as unfolding

As shown by Li (2014), the ability to benefit from land resources reflects an active work of assembling of relations, discourses, and materialities that are made to align (see also Richardson and Weszkalnys 2014). Along the Ayeyarwady River, the alluvial landscape resembles an origami construction, alternating silt, sand, and clay with water folds in one continuous motion. In this environment, the river plays the role of a powerful folder,37 removing the boundaries of land and building them up again in a constant pattern. The river thus creates large events and structures that local inhabitants have to deal with. Residents of island-villages are very much attuned to the cyclicality of land appearance and disappearance. They can remember the folds made in the past (older alluvial landforms, direction of erosion, etc.) and anticipate future river and land movements. The work of the river is in itself strategic in order for the residents to preemptively [End Page 72] deploy their tactics. When the river erodes housing plots or farms, they would choose, in some cases, not to withdraw, in order to generate evidence of erosion and file claims for the reallocation of village plots on future (and more strategic) lands. Anticipating the next movement of the land includes the task of co-construction or co-folding with the river. Kaing grasses, which provide an indication about the direction of land appearance also serve to trap sediments and slow down erosion. In critical places, the cultivators let the grasses grow in order to retain soil deposits, building up levees which act as a form of protection against land erosion. A newly appearing island with an uncertain surface full of kaing grasses could also be reclaimed temporarily. The fact that it presents as an uncultivable forest enables its reclamation.

In this ever-shifting landscape, the notion of "land control" is not equivalent to a capacity to maintain a presence on a given site, as when erecting fences and boundaries, but to embrace the new contours of the land. Land control is a matter of movement or jumping, from the old land to the new land, from the official to the unofficial, and from the last fold to the next fold. This is precisely where the boundaries between the tactical and the strategical blur. On alluvial land, the most efficient strategy is not the one that tends toward the stabilization of space, but one that plays on possibilities offered by a volatile political and physical environment. The alluvial landscape consists in this sense of both actual and virtual land and movements of people reflect an openness to this virtuality. Land is not viewed as simply actuality, a space to control with fixed lines and rules, but an actuality with its potentialities. This resonates with the argument of de Certeau who posits that what matters when associating strategy and tactics is the smoothness with which they are mixed together (1984:274; Mboukou 2015). On alluvial land and islands, this ability to generate the smooth depends on flexible alignment with all other elements involved, siding with the grasses, hiding with the sand, or moving along with erosion. Tactics hence become strategic. [End Page 73]


This article sheds light on the (un)naturalness of land access on the very fertile, also very unstable alluvial (is-)lands. The different cases show that alluvial land access practices consist of complex assemblages of use of law, opportunist coalitions with local authorities, and sporadic land encroachment. Owing to the fragmented nature of land tenure regimes, the analytical lens of "tactics" can be useful in developing a better understanding of access negotiation, that is how land is made accessible and controllable locally. Rather than opposing powerful state authorities on one side and powerless peasants on the other, this article highlights that the powers of exclusion and appropriation in relation to alluvial land are neither invariably "top down" nor are they preordained by hegemonic powers. The precariousness of the resource multiplies the potential source of tensions, and revives possibilities to contest previous arrangements. Local inhabitants play on different repertoires in order to make their claims, which are always intricately linked with the river and land movement. Land allocation unfolds in a vernacular landscape, in which local actors attempt to engage with their own context of sociopolitical and ecological uncertainties. I argue to conclude that investigating the multiplicity and political ecological contingency of local land practices is key to understanding the complexity of contemporary struggles and experiences of resource access in rural Myanmar.

Benoit Ivars

benoit ivars is a PhD candidate in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Cologne in Germany. Contributing to the "Volatile Waters" Project (, Accessed: 7 February 2020), his PhD research focuses on the everyday life of inhabitants in the Ayeyarwady River Delta in Myanmar. He can be reached at


I am much in debt to the many people of the Pyitawtha area for their time and hospitality. I am also especially indebted to The Ngone Oo for her help during the fieldwork and throughout the writing and translating process. I would like to thank my research project peers at the University of Cologne, as well as Jean-Philippe Venot, Aung Si and Willem van Schendel for giving me feedback on an earlier draft of this article. I would also like to thank The Journal of Burma Studies' editorial board and the three anonymous peer reviewers for their insightful comments. Research conducted for this article was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)'s Emmy Noether Program under the DELTA project (Number 276392588) and the École Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO).


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1. The transcription of Burmese terms follows the "standard conventional transcription" system recommended by John Okell, A Guide to the Romanization of Burmese (London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1971), 66–7.

2. Alluvial lands are known as kaing" mye, farmers cultivating on these lands as kaing"thama".

3. Island-villages designate the settlements, which are located on alluvial islands in contrast to villages on the riverbanks where local inhabitants have access to more stable lands.

4. For simplification, east, west, etc., always refer to cardinal directions (see figures, the top of the maps is north, right is east, and left is west).

5. This comes as a legacy of the 1963 Tenancy Law. Under the British colonial rule, the allocation of alluvial land was based on the administrative boundaries of village tracts. The right to use land belonged to the inhabitants of the tract within which it appeared. In 1963, new bylaws substituted this perimeter rule to one based on village units' proximity.

6. The text refers to villages, village tracts, and townships. The local administration structure consists of village tract, township, district, and state/region levels. A village tract is a group of villages. A township is a larger administration unit, falling into districts, then states and regions.

7. Shapefiles used for the background maps are drawn from works done by Robin Gruel (see Gruel, 2018).

I have collected administrative boundary lines using a GPSMAP 64 device, following local conventions and available maps from the General Administration Department (GAD) (Ministry of Home Affairs) and the Department of Agricultural Land Management and Statistics (DALMS, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation).

8. In precolonial Burma, alluvial land was categorized as crown land (Aung-Thwin 1981). Clients of the King administered the land in return for certain rights and privileges, through a fief system (Ibid.; Than Tun 1986:114–5).

9. Name changed from Settlement and Land Records Department (SLRD) to DALMS in 2015.

10. Colonial directions were ambivalent advising for the annual redistribution of mye-nu' land and simultaneously proposing to give priority to previous occupants, creating the possibility for continuous possession.

11. The Land Nationalization Act of 1948 (replaced in 1953) asserted the State's ultimate jurisdiction over land. All agricultural land became state owned, with some exceptions for family-owned lands (Leckie and Siperingham 2009). The administration recognized farmers land use or tillage rights (lok'paing-khwin') on their landholdings. The sell, rent, transfer, or mortgage was officially forbidden until the enactment of the 2012 Farmland Law.

12. On newly appearing landforms, it is common for land to be distributed unofficially. Village administrators are in charge of the demarcation and land division process.

13. For instance, in the case of two-acre plots (the rule in Pyitawtha), the column would measure 120 lan in width (from west to east) and plots would be delineated every twenty lan.

14. One lan = six feet.

15. In order to preserve the anonymity of my informants and interviewees, I used pseudonyms.

16. To my knowledge, no boundary change has occurred between Nyaungdone and Pantanaw Townships since the 1980s. Official maps from the GAD and the DALMS in Pantanaw and Nyaungdone show different boundaries, which can be confusing. Conflicts between villages partly ensue over the resolution of such confusion. According to the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008), Chapter 2, Paragraph 54, in a situation where the need to alter or form the territorial boundary of a village tract or township or district arises, the President Shall act, upon the recommendation of the Chief Minister of the region or state concerned.

17. Pyitawtha inhabitants are farmers specialized in the cultivation of dry chili. The majority of them are tenant-cultivators (with holdings, on average, of one to two acres) or small landowners (two to five acres) using family labor and relying on hired labor for harvesting activities. The ratio of households depending exclusively on agricultural wages for their livelihood is less than fifteen per cent. Seasonal migrants, mainly landless laborers from rice-planting areas fill the labor gaps during the harvesting season and return to their homes at the onset of the monsoon.

It should be noted that in these areas, the prevailing arrangements of land tenure are highly fluctuating. A family can be tenant-cultivator one year and, by receiving a plot in distribution the next year, turn landowner. More than one out of two households are able to remain small landowners through land purchases when facing erosion. Others can be forced to enter into tenancy contracts with small landlords before receiving new land in distribution.

18. Under the socialist military regime of U Ne Win (1962–1988), landless peasants were a priori the gainers due to changing land policy. In Pyitawtha, this was reflected in the exclusion of large landowners, local chili traders and moneylenders (in most cases, individual farmers embodied all three functions) from land allocation structures (see also Maung Maung Nyunt 2018). However, economic elites in the village retained control on land as they held the capital necessary to make a productive use of the land. They were able to incorporate lands by purchasing from smallholders within their groups or increase their landholdings in other village territories. Due to land instability, accumulation processes do not manifest as a linear expansion of landholding, but an ability to regain and expand access to new and more stable land. The main difference between house-holds is that some are able to invest on more stable lands, which are more expensive and reduce the number of moves due to erosion. Well-off residents have the power to select their moves, while the disadvantaged portions in the village move wherever they can afford to and/or where the village land allocation lists drive them.

During the socialist period (1962–1988), farmers were also encouraged to work land collectively by pooling their resources and sharing benefits (groups receiving the tillage rights). In practice, the collective solution was rarely favored by local inhabitants and land continued to be allotted as individual plots.

19. Letter from seven farmers from Pyitawtha Village to the divisional and village-tract level State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) on the subject of alluvial land case, dated October 1988.

20. Some informants claimed that the boundary between the two villages was already established at 360 lan in 1966.

21. Letter from the President of the Kat Tha Win Village Tract State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to the President of the Pantanaw Township SPDC and Township SLRD/DALMS Director on the subject of alluvial land boundary between Pyitawtha and Kyaung Su, dated July 30, 2007.

22. In 2003, the position of Pyitawtha was eroding (located at the level of the column kagwe (1) and kadji (2) following a distribution that started in the early 1990s and which provided Pyitawtha's inhabitants with a right extending over five columns, from kagwe (1) to nga (5) until the township boundary). Land reappeared eastward, but within the administrative boundaries of Nyaungdone Township. Tensions erupted between landless cultivators from Pyitawtha and Gan Chaung villagers (a riverbank village located in Nyaungdone) who hold a right on land from column salon (6) eastward. This led to the intervention of the district and regional SPDC. The two main arguments used by Pyitawtha village leaders to claim a right on the land were the active erosion on their side and the fact that Gan Chaung farmers were not interested in the cultivation of new alluvial lands, which they sublet to other farmers, including from Pyitawtha. As such, the Pyitawtha village community was granted exceptionally the column ta'talin"cheik' (11) inside Nyaungdone Township (120 lan in width) in 2003. Since 2005–2006, the village of Pyitawtha was even relocated along this column and hence lies in Nyaungdone geographically (see figure 1). Conflicts are still prevalent in the area (in figure 2, see the result of a recent allocation of land that reaffirms the right of Pyitawtha to any land appearing along the column ta'talin"cheik' based on SPDC administration decision). Since 2016, the village leaders keep records of lands rented or bought by Pyitawtha residents from Gan Chaung farmers. The list is tactically used to prove the disinterest of Gan Chaung inhabitants in directly using the land.

23. The village administrative structure consists of ten households' leaders (hse-eim-hmu) answerable to 100 households' leaders (ya-eim-hmu), themselves answerable to the Village Tract administrator (VTA, ok-chok-yei"-hmu).

24. Letter from Pyitawtha Village elected leaders (ya-eim-hmu) and elders to the Pantanaw Township GAD on the subject of trespassing case on Pyitawtha's land, dated October 15, 2014.

25. Letter (no. 5/1-7/006) from the Pantanaw Township Farmland Administration Body (FAB) to the Kat Tha Win VTA on the subject of real-locating authorization to work on alluvial land, dated December 4, 2014.

26. Letter from the Maubin District Farmland Administration Body (FAB) to the Pantanaw Township FAB on the subject of changing authorization to work on alluvial land, dated November 2, 2015, and Letter from the Pantanaw Township FAB to the Kat Tha Win VTA on the subject of instructions on alluvial land case, dated November 25, 2015.

27. Letter from the Kat Tha Win VTA to Pyitawtha's village elected leaders (ya-eim-hmu) on the subject of conflicting alluvial land, dated November 11, 2017.

28. Letter from the Pyitawtha's village elected leaders (ya-eim-hmu) to the Pantanaw Township GAD on the subject of forbidding authorization to work on alluvial land, dated December 5, 2017.

29. Change of village and VTAs is often the source of frictions between neighboring villages as they can deny the legitimacy of previous customary arrangements.

30. There have not been cases of alluvial land obtained by military or Tatmadaw veterans and rented to farmers in the area. In exchange for their favor, land administrators and officials however usually receive plots (funds lands) that are rented to local cultivators.

31. In 2017, according to village-tract records, the number of landless households in Pyitawtha was of eighty-seven (out of a total of 370). Categorized as landless are those who do not hold tenure right on already distributed land within the village (lok'paing-khwin' ya-mye). A farmer who buys land outside the village land territory (ne-mye) without having land in the village (due to erosion, exclusion from previous land allocation, etc.) would still be considered as landless on paper. Thus, farmers who bought land in neighboring areas as well as in distant alluvial fronts can be included in the village attendance list (tan"si-sa-yin"). Village leaders tactically use the category of landless in order to compete with other villages to gain access to new lands. This, however, creates tensions within the village between the "true" landless and those who have sufficient capital to buy areas to enlarge their holdings outside the village.

32. The production of dry chili requires a high level of capital and labor inputs. Intravillage disputes over land access reflects, to a certain extent, a competition between different village traders who have monopolized credit channels and the marketing of chilies. The extent of their power depends on the number of residents and lands that they have under their patronage and hence makes access to new land a constantly contested ground.

33. A local expression to refer to bribe. Although arrangements of this type are frequently described as corruption or failure of the government system, they are better understood in this case as tactical coalitions in a political economic landscape that is highly volatile (i.e., filling in the blanks).

34. Pyitawtha had in 2018 a population of 367 households represented as follows: in Ywar Ma, ten hse-eim-hmu and one ya-eim-hmu; in Hsin Kyun, ten hse-eim-hmu and one ya-eim-hmu; in another group, more disparate (in most cases, eroded households from Ywar Ma who moved near their new plots), and referred to as thaung thet, five hse-eim-hmu and one ya-eim-hmu. The remaining portion of households has moved to other alluvial frontiers located in Nyaungdone.

In late 2017, following new local elections, the ya-eim-hmu from Ywar Ma was elected as the village representative (ta-wun-hkan), a new position created under the amended Ward and Village Tract Administration Law (2012, amended December 2016).

35. The creation of Hsin Kyun reflects a competition between rival factions within the village. Hsin Kyun was the place of residence of two prominent political figures during the socialist regime. The hospital land case in the mid-1980s was a source of tensions that led to an accusation against five influential villagers during the socialist period. After 1988, the socialist-era village elites lost access to political functions to the benefit of leaders from opposed groups (who were economically powerful as chili traders; currently in Ywar Ma). Political changes in 1988 do not mark a rupture in local land access conditions; however, the changing distribution of power within the village generated new possibilities for discrimination in terms of land allocation (between Hsin Kyun and Ywar Ma groups).

36. Letter from the Kat Tha Win VTA to Hsin Kyun elected leaders (ya-eim-hmu and hse-eim-hmu) on the subject of forbidding authorization to work on alluvial land, dated January 2, 2016.

37. Locally, this image of folding echoes with the semantics of "food" and "feeding." My interlocutors often refer to erosion as the river "eating" or swallowing the land. They also believed that when the river eats people, the future islands would be more stable. Practices of land encroachment are simultaneously viewed as "eating" in the form of a continuum between the hungry-river, the alluvial islands, and the people who feed on them.