Last month, about 200 farmers from three townships in rural Yangon did something that was until very recently impossible in Burma: they staged a legal protest, demanding that their land, confiscated by private firms and state bodies, be returned to them.
Wearing bamboo hats and the traditional Burma longyi, the farmers, mostly in their late 40s and 50s, were escorted by police as they marched along main roads on the city’s outskirts, carrying signs made from cardboard and paper with messages such as “Farmers have to work the fields, but other people get the benefits” and “Will you solve the dispute according to the law?” hastily scrawled in marker.
The July 14 protest was the first to test the limits of the new Peaceful Protest Law, which requires protesters to seek permission from police and local officials at least five days before the planned date. With the help of a local politician, the farmers negotiated the bureaucratic procedures and got the okay for the march, which ended peacefully at 11 a.m., after about two hours.
“We reported these cases to the government many times but the responses were not substantial enough for the farmers. So I hope every member of the public knows about the farmers and also hope that the president notices them,” U Nay Myo Wai, chairman of the Peace and Diversity Party, told local media.
Demonstrations over land ownership, such as the one on July 14, have become increasingly common in Yangon and other parts of Burma over the past year.
Many of the land disputes are not new, dating back to the last time the country attempted to “open up” to investors in the early 1990s. Over the past 20 years, some 1.9 million acres have ended up in the hands of private Burmese firms through a variety of means, most of which had some pretext of legality. More than 70 percent of these private holdings have never been developed, however, and often the original owners were allowed to continue farming on an annual basis. But anticipating a flood of foreign investment, private firms are beginning to reassert ownership over these increasingly valuable plots and beginning development projects, as well as seeking new concessions. The government has also started touting the agriculture sector to potential foreign investors; the 2nd Commercial Farm Asia expo – tagline: “Making Inroads into Asia’s Awakened Tiger for Sustainable Agri Investments!” – will be held in Yangon in October.
Together with a relaxation on protests and media censorship, as well as the introduction of two important new land laws earlier this year, this has resulted in land ownership rights and land confiscation re-emerging as national issues – and one that experts like Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz warn could derail government efforts to reduce poverty if mismanaged.
About two-thirds of the country’s population relies directly and indirectly on the agriculture sector, yet government figures show it comprises only 36.43 percent of gross domestic product. According to a joint UN-government survey conducted in 2009-10, 26 percent of the population remains below a poverty line set at a meagre 754 kyats a day – about 85 U.S. cents – and poverty is most acute among landless rural households.
Much of the land handed to private firms has been designated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation as fallow, vacant, or virgin land, with no registered owners. While it is often occupied and being cultivated, the government has typically characterized those working this land as “squatters.” In a nationally televised speech on economic reform on June 19, President U Thein Sein said the country was facing “difficulties in land management as squatters on forest land, virgin and fallow land and others are acting as if they originally own the plot they illegally occupied.”
“The result is widespread problems and because of these problems we are not in a position to allot a large number of hectares of land for investments as other countries do,” he said.
His comments have caused disquiet among the leaders of civil society and non-government organizations working on land issues.
“I’m not really sure if the president is really intensively aware about land issues,” said U Shwe Thein, chairman of the Land Core Group, a network of more than 30 international and local organizations focusing on land issues. “To me, this [statement] is not encouraging for the farmers. This is very alarming and as civil society networks we need to do more to update the president’s understanding on these issues and how farmers are vulnerable in terms of land tenure security.”
While new laws allowing unions and legalizing protests have garnered most of the headlines, recent changes to how land is administered will be equally significant in the years to come. In August of last year, the former Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation and now general secretary of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), U Htay Oo, submitted a new Farmland Law to parliament. This was quickly followed by the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, and amended versions of both laws were approved during the third session in early 2012. They represent the most substantial change to the legal framework for land since the early 1960s when everything was nationalized.
The new laws officially reintroduce the concept of private ownership, which means land tenure rights – all land remains the property of the state and can be nationalized by the government if necessary – can be sold, traded, or mortgaged. In one sense this is a positive step, as land was already being traded illegally but openly on a black market with little transparency. But the new laws also remove some protections for farmers; for example, allowing land to be repossessed if they fall into debt.
Activist U Win Myo Thu of the Burma non-government organization EcoDev warned recently that many farmers could also potentially lose their land under the two laws because they lacked proper ownership documents, citing a survey his organization conducted in 2010 of 1040 farmers in three states that found almost three-quarters had only a land tax receipt as proof of ownership.
“Without considering the land security of these farmers, [we can] forget about the people-centered development that the president is highlighting all the time,” he said.