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In"-less: a short story of fisher dispossession and migration in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar

Benoit from the DELTA team tells a short story of fisher migration amidst water infrastructure development in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar.


A view from the reservoir waters. In the foreground, fish traps are placed on sticks. In the background, some houses located at the foot of small wooded hills are visible. They are recognizable by their blue iron roofs. According to my interlocutors, the use of iron dates from about ten years ago. Previously, the fishers preferred to use only bamboo, wood and leaves in order to make their houses less detectable by officials and the military. Behind the houses, small wooded hills classified as forest reserves can be seen. (image: author, 8 September 2018).

In the course of my doctoral research in the Maubin District of the Ayeyarwady Delta (Myanmar), I (Benoit) conducted part of my fieldwork in a village that traditionally operated capture fisheries known as in". The in" fisheries consist of a complex network of streams and pools that are exploited when flood waters recede, and the fish start to move to the permanent waters of the river. Various forms of bamboo traps and fences are built to capture the fish or to divert their movements towards the traps. Later during the season, the fish species that remain in the shallow water are caught by baling and bunding and/or with a variety of fish traps. Until the 1990s, large areas of low-lying and flooded land used as fishing sites could be found besides the streams and pools that support the in" fisheries. These areas, known as deep-water or deep-paddy areas, were remainders of the large-scale land reclamation process that characterized the delta rice frontier (1852-1941) described by Michael Adas (1974).1 In the 1950-60s, the post-independence Burmese governments highlighted the difficulties of growing rice on the deep-water lands, which were consequently demarcated as fishing sites under the category of flood fisheries (yei-paw-yei-hlyan). Many inhabitants, especially small-scale fishers, depended on the flood fisheries for their livelihoods.

In the early 1990s, the new military government of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, renamed as the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC after 1997) discarded the category of flood fisheries, re-emphasizing the agricultural potential of the deep-water lands (see the YouTube video). To render the land fit for cultivation, the government implemented a land reclamation program that consisted of draining the flooded lands by means of sluice gates and canals. For the communities of capture fishers, the construction of these hydraulic infrastructures led to a reduction of their fishing space (Campbell 2019; Ivars and Venot 2020). The dispossession effect was exacerbated with the arrival of external actors, notably companies, who came to develop the uncovered land (see also Mark and Belton 2020). Initially oriented towards cultivation, the companies gradually entered the in" fishery sector. They obtained leases from the government and sold back the fishing rights to villagers, making a large profit in the process (on this, see also Yin Nyein et al. 2020). While local fishers could continue to access the in" fisheries, opportunities reduced. This was especially the case for the small-scale fishers who depended on the flood fisheries. Many of them explained that they had turned in"-less (in”me’), a term that echoes of the plight of landless farmers.

In order to maintain their fishing activity, several dozen families resorted to migration, and moved to new fishing territories located in the Yangon and Bago regions, north-east of Maubin District. During the 1990-2000s, the SLORC/SPDC government built a series of reservoirs based on the same objective that had led to the drainage of the deep-water lands in Maubin, i.e. to boost agricultural production. But whereas in Maubin District, the construction of hydraulic infrastructure had led to the reduction of water areas, in the Yangon and Bago regions, the creation of reservoirs led to the emergence of new aquatic spaces. This paved the way to an interesting dynamic of migration of fishers from the drained territories of Maubin to the reservoirs. Reservoir fisheries were and still are technically prohibited in Burma/Myanmar following a ban by the Irrigation Department (ID) in 1995. In practice, however, the reservoirs have been progressively settled by fishers, notably from Maubin, and constitute active pioneer fronts.

It is on one of these reservoirs that I met U Moe for the first time in September 2018. U Moe is a former inhabitant of the village where I conducted my fieldwork in Maubin. In the mid-2000s, he migrated to the Yangon-Bago region and settled on a reservoir, where he now lives with his wife and their two children. Since most of the reservoirs have been built on forest land (a fortiori demarcated as forest reserves), any form of settlement is technically prohibited. Given the (theoretically2) illegal nature of the settlement and fishing activities, the names of places and people have been changed. The table below lists the different reservoirs built in the Yangon and Bago regions (Irrigation Department data):


Location (Region/Township)

Water surface area (ha)

Date of construction

Gyo Phyu




Phu Gyi








La Gun Byin








Paung Lin




Kat Li Htaw




Ma Hu Yar








Wa Ga Dok




Ma Zin












Zaung Tu (weir)




Zalat Htaw




Shwepyi (3)




Alaing Ni




Pyin Pone Gyi




Baw Ni




Kaw Li Ya




Bine Dar




U Moe settled with his family on an old forest section located on the edge of the reservoir. He lives along with another forty families who have spatially grouped themselves to be recognized as a village entity. U Moe described the settlement as a village (kyei-ywa), which is part of a larger residential group comprising four settlements. As of 2018, a total of 118 families and 453 individuals lived in these four settlements.

A dozen families came from the village where I conducted my fieldwork. Interestingly, there were families originally from other villages in Maubin who had similar experiences of dispossession. When I visited the area in 2018 and 2019, the four settlements were in the process of being officially recognized by the government. U Moe said that they had tried to have the forest land, on which they had built their village, degazetted and converted into village land (ywa-myei), but the Forest Department who has jurisdiction over the land had not acceded to their demand. Although U Moe’s settlement does not have the status of a village, the residents have funded the construction of a monastery, pagoda as well as their own (kaut-htu kaut-hta) school. This school provides education to sixty children, and the villagers assume responsibility for the school’s management, notably for covering the salaries of the two teachers employed at the school. In the pioneer front context of the reservoirs, the construction of the local infrastructure (monastery, pagoda, school), which constitutes the center of any Buddhist village community in rural Myanmar, can be seen as a form of territorialisation.

When I first came to the reservoir from my village study in Maubin District, I had to take a boat, a first bus, then a second and finally a third bus, a motorcycle and finally a second boat to navigate on the reservoir where many hamlets and smaller groups of houses are scattered. My first question for U Moe was thus, “How?” How did he and other fishers come to settle on the reservoir?

To explain his migration, U Moe first mentioned the deteriorating living conditions in his home village. Before he migrated to the reservoir, U Moe had depended both on the in" fisheries and the flooded land. As he framed it, every year he moved wherever his fish trader moved. Like many other small-scale fishers, U Moe depended on a village-based fish trader who provided him cash advances to buy his fishing traps. In exchange, U Moe sold his fish to the trader. Debt was the main principle of social and economic organization of the capture fisheries. With the reduction of the fishing space, said U Moe, opportunities reduced both for the fish marketers and the fishers:

‘’In the past, there were over twenty fish-paste (nga"-pi) processers as well as dried fish traders in the village, but nowadays there are not more than ten of them. There are no more traders icing fresh fish, only small-scale fish buyers (hkaung"ywek byek-to") who would each trade around 30-50 viss3 a day.”


“By staying in the village, I would be a labourer working under companies and labourers can make a living only if they know how to drink and cheat. Drink because it is tiring, and cheat by stealing fish because it’s the only way to sustain one’s livelihood there. People simply can’t support a family with MMK 4,000 - 5,000 (around USD 2-3) per day.” (U Moe)

By evoking theft and alcohol consumption, both proscribed by the five precepts that lay followers of Buddhism are bound to follow, U Moe referred to a justification that was not only economic, but also cultural and religious. The reorganization of the fisheries following the drainage and the arrival of companies, no longer afforded the conditions for a good life, both on material and spiritual levels.

According to U Moe, fish traders based in Yangon played an active role in the migration towards the reservoirs. For these traders, the reservoir areas were also new territories to expand their marketing activities. Some fishers, following the indications of these traders, tried their luck first, and later other fishers including U Moe followed suit. The first fishers to settle on the reservoir had the advantage of anteriority. They built ties with local authorities and department officials who had jurisdiction over the area (Irrigation Department for the reservoir water and Forest Department for the surrounding land). Some of these early settlers, who had come as fishers, became fish retailers and traders themselves. They supported the costs of mutual understanding (na"-le-mu-kyei"), in other words, the unofficial fees to be paid to departments and military authorities in order to extract fish from the reservoir. All fishers who came after them had to go through them in order to fish on the reservoir so that they became integrated in their marketing network. When U Moe first settled on the reservoir, he recalled that he had to pay a monthly fee to stay there. But some military officials took advantage of the illegal nature of the settlement and fishery by asking additional fees. The reservoirs, as new aquatic spaces, were hence not only beneficial to the capture fishers who migrated there, but also for fish traders, local authorities, and department officials who benefited from activities that appear bottom-up and illegal. Today, my interlocutors said they could generate a daily income of about MMK 5,000-10,000 (USD 3-6) per day. During the rainy months, from June to August, the catch value can reach up to MMK 50,000 (USD 30) per day. But in spite of these high figures, most of my interlocutors, including U Moe, claim that fishers operate at a low margin. This paradox can be explained by the settlement history and the pricing system set up by fish retailers and traders, who exerted a de facto control over the reservoir fisheries.

Based on their privileged relations with authorities and officials, fish marketers operated in a form of oligopsony: “those who prepared and sold fish on their own faced a high risk”, argued U Moe. The fish marketers supplied other fishers’ families with cash advances and daily necessities, repaying themselves with the fish that fishers brought. U Moe, for instance, depended on a fish trader originally from Zalun Township in the Delta, whom I referred to as Daw Yi:

“Daw Yi was not even rich when we settled on the reservoir. She was only a hawker (hkaung"ywek zei"te). She bought us rice, oil, and cooking products from the nearby town in exchange for fish. In doing so, she got more people working under her and she could make more profit. At the time, there was no motorized boats, only rafts. Fish marketing was more monopolistic, since transportation was limited.” (U Moe)

Daw Yi not only buys fish from U Moe and other dependent fishers, but she also asks them to process fish based on her prescriptions (e.g. preparing smoked or dried fish). For traders like her, providing goods in credit and cash advances has been a way to build ties with fishers and ensure a constant supply of fish. Since most fishers are bound to specific fish marketers, they must continue supplying the latter with fish in order to repay the debts incurred. U Moe and my other interlocutors point to price-cutting amounting to half or even three-quarters of the market prices in Yangon. The fish marketers justified their low prices by the indebtedness of the fishers as well as the charges incurred for transporting fish (ice, fuel, etc.). U Moe described fishers’ relation with Daw Yi in terms of a business partnership (si"pwa"yek meik-swei), which eventually turned into a debt relationship:

“People don’t like her (Daw Yi) because she cheats a lot when weighing the fish. But although other fishers dislike her, they can’t say anything because they are indebted to her.”

When U Moe told me his story, I thought about the first reason he mentioned for leaving his village in Maubin, namely to avoid turning into a labourer working for a company. I asked him how he viewed his relation with Daw Yi since based on his description, it appeared that many fishers are indebted and operate as labourers under the fish marketers. To this, U Moe replied that although it might be the case for some heavily indebted fishers, people still hold a certain agency: first, the agency to evade their obligation to sell fish to the marketer to whom they are indebted (obtaining better prices that may help them to repay their debts), and second, the agency to bypass and even compete with the fish marketers, as evidenced by his personal story. U Moe had a good financial situation compared to other small-scale fishers. In addition to his fishing activity, he made boats with the wood he collected in the nearby forest. This activity brought him a substantial income since new fishers who came to settle on the reservoir must have their own boat, the only means of transportation on the reservoir. U Moe's wife worked as an intermediary for a fish trader. She would weigh the fish caught by fishers in the area, and send it to the main collection point at the entrance of the reservoir. Paid MMK 200 (USD 0.12) per viss, she made an average salary of MMK 100,000 (USD 60) per month. Since the year 2018, U Moe has started to buy fish from other fishers who live on another reservoir located nearby. Daw Yi also used to buy fish from those fishers. But U Moe had two advantages. First, those fishers came from the same village as him, and they thus had personal relationships. U Moe bought the fish with upfront cash payments, in contrast to Daw Yi, who paid the fishers only after she has sold the fish in the market in Yangon. Second, U Moe can offer a higher price to the fishers by lowering his profit margin, arguing that Daw Yi was “eating” a lot (i.e. offering very low prices). When Daw Yi offered MMK 500 for one viss of fish, U Moe paid MMK 800 (the market price being at the time MMK 2,000 per viss). U Moe said that he handle only a small amount of fish, but that he could still make a fairly large profit. Daw Yi had tried to prevent him from buying fish from other fishers. She had notified the administrator from the nearby village tract accusing U Moe of stealing fish:

“Stealing fish from whom? She even told the workers whom I hired for carrying the fish boxes to stop working for me otherwise she would not offer them any job in the future […] but this place is not an in" fishery, she has no right to prevent me from buying and selling fish on my own. She pays money to the Irrigation Department (ID) in order to market fish. So when she told me I could not trade fish myself, I told her to tell the authorities how much she had paid to the ID.” (U Moe)

U Moe remained evasive when I asked him how he himself dealt with authorities and officials to be able to market fish. He said that the situation was not like before - suggesting that bribing was no longer necessary - adding that he was friends with the administrator of the nearby village tract. In any case, his trajectory is interesting in that it illustrates the possibilities offered to the fishers who migrated to the reservoirs. The informal economy of fish extraction positions the migrant fishers along a spectrum of autonomy and exploitation, in which some are able to take advantage and others less so. The majority of my interlocutors, including U Moe, had no plans to return to their home village in Maubin, where some still owned a house. On the reservoirs, they have reclaimed many of the characteristics of their former fishing life (i.e. before the land drainage and the arrival of the companies): clear and extensive waters, abundant resources and a convivial fishing activity.


1 The existence of the frontier relied on the availability of large areas of uncultivated land. During the British period, agriculture, and more specifically rice cultivation, has developed on a large scale. Land was gradually reclaimed and converted into paddy-land. With the decrease of available land, the rice frontier closed, a process that was both gradual and incomplete. In the Maubin District, large areas of land remained flooded and uncultivated as of 1941 (the so-called deep-paddy areas). In the lower delta, there were also remaining tracts of mangroves and, more generally, large areas of forest classified as forest reserves.

2 Although technically illegal, these settlements are locally recognized. When the question of whether I could stay overnight in the settlement arose, the headman of a neighboring village tract (official) had to be informed. According to U Moe, the four village sites, although unofficial, depended on this neighboring village tract. There are also rules established by the Irrigation Department. Residents are, for instance, forbidden to build houses on the water.

3 1 viss is equivalent to 1.63kg.



Adas, M. 1974. The Burma Delta: economic development and social change on an Asian rice frontier, 1852–1941. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Campbell, S. 2019. Reading Myanmar's inland fisheries: postcolonial literature as theoretical lens. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 20(1): 2-18.

Ivars, B. and J.-P. Venot. 2020. Claiming and re-claiming the Ayeyarwady Delta, time and again: the case of Nyaungdone Island, Myanmar. Journal of Political Ecology 27(1): 517-538.

Mark, S. and B. Belton. 2020. Breaking with the past? Land restitution and the limits to restitutive justice in Myanmar. Land Use Policy 94.

Yin Nyein, Rick Gregory and Aung Kyaw Thein. 2020. ‘Ten Years of Fisheries Governance Reforms in Myanmar (2008-2018)’ in Living With Myanmar, Chambers J., Galloway C., and Liljeblad J. (eds) ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute: 183-203.