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.
Different organizations, networks, and institutions have responded in various ways to the challenge of improving land tenure security in Burma. When the laws were submitted to parliament, civil society organizations and non-government organizations – which were excluded from the drafting process – lobbied individual politicians to have their many concerns addressed, with some success. Following on from this, the Land Core Group recently launched an activity plan that runs until 2014 and has already attracted significant donor interest.
At the other end of the spectrum, UN-HABITAT is working directly with the under-resourced Settlement and Land Records Department on a two-year program that aims, among other things, to modernize ownership records and cadastral maps, most of which are still only on paper.
“I think both approaches are equally important to achieving the same objective, which is to help the government implement land laws in Burma that are inclusive of the smallholder farmer majority. That’s a shared objective but with different role and different approaches,” said Eben Forbes, program officer at the UN-HABITAT office in Yangon.
He said the passage of the laws through parliament had prompted a “huge spike in interest” about land issues among politicians, non-government organizations and aid donors.
“When the laws were being debated everyone was focused on them and we all got kind of fixated on the text of these laws for a while. But now they’ve been passed so it doesn’t do us much good to debate the nitty-gritty of the laws – it’s time to move on to the next step, which is the implementation,” he said.
“As Burma opens up into this new phase, [land is] seen as a critical area with a lot of potential in both directions; there’s the potential for sustainable development or there’s the potential for it to go in a really bad direction.”
Support for the farmers’ cause has also come from some unlikely sources, particularly in parliament. U Aung Thein Linn, a former brigadier general, mayor of Yangon and senior figure in the USDP, said recently following a study trip to central Burma that the new laws should be amended to strengthen the ownership rights of small-scale farmers.
While most observers would question the motives of the former military man – land is likely to be a major political issue in rural areas when his party comes up against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the 2015 election – the USDP-dominated national parliament recently overruled the government and voted to form a committee to investigate land disputes across the country, after a record number of MPs had discussed the proposal.
Lawyers and politicians outside the parliament – some of whom contested but lost seats in the November 2010 election – have also taken an active role, helping farmers understand the law and how it can be used to their advantage against businesses and government departments.
Mostly free of the muzzle of government censorship, numerous columns in each issue of the country’s increasingly vibrant private newspapers are given over to documenting land grabs, while farmers themselves have even started to use new laws to organize and form associations.
This coalition of forces appears to be making some ground. Last week, the prominent Weekly Eleven newspaper reported that a major agribusiness firm had handed back a concession of some 40,000 acres to farmers in the fertile Ayeyarwady delta, and said more firms were considering doing the same, ostensibly because they were financially viable. In June, the military agreed to pay compensation to the owners of more than 500 acres of land in northern Shan State that it confiscated in 2009 after lobbying from the local Member of Parliament.
But most agree that the private sector will play a significant role in Burma’s agriculture sector, which remains dominated by small-scale farmers who have little access to the formal credit they need to buy inputs and expand production. One of the Land Core Group’s first activities was to organize a conference with members of the nation’s largest business organization, the Union of Burma Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, on contract farming and associated corporate social responsibility issues. On August 9, it also hosted a workshop focusing on “how to engage with the private sector to benefit smallholder farmers” that was organized in “response to opportunities and threats of rapidly growing agribusiness interest in Burma, which is set to escalate as the country undergoes economic reform and prepares for a surge in FDI in the agricultural sector,” according to the group.
Another major development in Burma’s agriculture sector in recent years has been the formation of more than 50 “rice specialist companies” that provide cheap credit and inputs to farmers in one or two specific townships. While it has not been without its problems – farmers struggle to understand contracts, and the companies buy back paddy at the time of the year when it is cheapest – contract farming along these lines could provide a means of protecting land tenure rights while facilitating the private sector involvement that the government is keen to encourage.
“There are a lot of private sector pressures on the country [from] investors that want to get into the act so contract farming could be a way of satisfying all parties [and] avoiding a kind of ‘land grabbing model’ that you hear about happening in developing countries,” Eben Forbes said. “But it needs to be studied, particularly how it has played out in other countries around the region. I know it’s been abused but it depends on the contract: it can be a really win-win situation where farmers get better access to markets.”
The author is a Burma-based writer. His real name has been withheld at his request.