The Great Southeast Asian Land Grab (Page 2 of 2)

Myanmar is a different case but is facing the same basic problem. Like Cambodia, Myanmar’s population is overwhelmingly rural. Unlike Cambodia, however, at least certain regions have relatively well developed practices for land tenureship that have until recently been reasonably well integrated into the formal legal structure. Moreover, Myanmar is much more ethnically diverse and has been embroiled in ethnic conflict for more than sixty years now. These differences further complicate the dilemma between subsistence farmers and agribusiness.

Since initiating a civilian administration in March 2011 under President Thein Sein, the government of Myanmar has sought to attract investment to help boost its economy. Part of this effort has involved new regulations on land ownership and investment, such as the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law and the Foreign Investment Law, which critics claim favor large investors at the expense of Myanmar’s rural subsistence farmers. These legal actions alter if not distort the existing legal framework and echo a similar trend to Cambodia, where there has been a recent upsurge in industrial-scale rural land acquisitions that has been underway since at least the mid-2000s.

One consequence has been more frequent conflict between local farmers being made landless and the investors and governments taking away their land. A notable example of this is the Chinese-owned Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing. The mine confiscated 3,000 hectares of land and caused the forced relocation of 200 families. When local community members attempted to protest, violence followed and at least 70 people were hurt. In an unexpected twist, despite the heavy handed and undemocratic nature of the acquisition, democratic activist and political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited the area in March 2013 to convince villagers to accept the compensation offered by the company, even though it was regarded as less than a fair offer.

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Throughout Southeast Asia there are numerous other examples of social conflict brought on by the expropriation of rural lands at the expense of their inhabitants for the benefit of large investors. These conflicts transcend boundaries, culture and legal apparatus and represent a common challenge that governments across ASEAN need to address more effectively. Speaking with The Diplomat, Professor Apiwat Ratanawaraha of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, who specializes in land issues, noted that "Extreme economic and social inequality is further exacerbated by land insecurity, which in turn affects political stability and security. A number of farmers' demonstrations in Southeast Asia are deep-rooted in land insecurity.”

The implications of the current dilemma of land tenancy for Southeast Asia’s leaders are serious. Although it seems unlikely that a rural-based revolution will emerge to overthrow a government anywhere soon, the issue will continue to fester as a source of societal tension, as the well-connected continue to prosper and the rural poor become more impoverished. Some would expect that the newly landless will move to the cities and take up new livelihoods, but as the case of the sugar cane plantation in Koh Kong shows there are many others who will remain where they, even if landless.

For now, though, the most tangible implication is the damage done to government credibility, as seen in the recent national elections in Cambodia. Land grabbing has been at the forefront of public debate in Cambodia for years now and it appears that the ruling party has begun to be held accountable for it, at least to some degree. The failure to address the dilemma between the rural citizenry and large investors from Phnom Penh or abroad effectively or justly is at least one explanation for the Cambodian People’s Party relatively poor showing at the polls in July.

Following her less than courageous stand at the Letpadaung copper mine Aung San Suu Kyi should take note.

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