Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s Lawless Land

Myanmar’s fledgling reforms have attracted significant Western interest. But they have also brought thousands of land claims by ethnic villagers.

By Phil Thornton for

There’s no doubt that Myanmar is a country in transition. Even its harshest critics admit that the government is initiating reforms. Laws have been passed that allow participation in politics and increased media freedom. Many political prisoners have been freed, travel restrictions have been eased and ceasefire agreements have been brokered with ethnic armed groups.

The development surge and the laws that enable it have also seen the seizure of swathes of natural resource-rich land in border areas where ethnic communities are being dispossessed by “development projects” initiated by powerful interest groups – the military, corrupt officials and business elites.

Losing Ground, a comprehensive report by the Karen Human Rights Group released in Bangkok earlier this year, documents this displacement through data collected by field workers between January 2011 and November 2012. Saw Albert, the KHRG field director, provides details of the abuse, destruction of property, pollution, theft and confiscation of land. He opens the report and points to the testimony of a female villager, Naw L—, 54, from T’Nay Hsah Township.

“Since [Burma Army] Battalion #549 came and based here, my properties are gone and no one has pity on me. One thing starts to belong to the battalion, then two things belong to the battalion. You go back to your plantation and they ask, ‘What kind of paper [and title] do you have? This is military land. It all belongs to the military.”

Saw Albert, who has spent months on fact-finding trips inside Karen State points out that 50 field and community workers, under the supervision of KHRG, collected 2,534 pieces of information, including 1,270 oral testimonies, 523 audio interviews and thousands of images and written orders issued by civilian and military officials.

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Some 809 of these documents were translated into English and analyzed to form the report, which found that land confiscation and forced displacement occurred without “consultation, compensation or, often, notification.”

Saw Albert confirms that since their report was released earlier this year and tells The Diplomat that little has changed for villagers fighting land grabs and said.

“The government’s Land Acquisition Investigative Commission is toothless. Villagers were hoping the Commission would solve their problems, but it has no power – it can only document complaints. These land disputes have the potential to cause huge problems if the rule of law in rural areas is not applied fairly.”

KHRG has identified that displacement occurs mainly around the extraction of natural resources and development projects including “hydropower dam construction, infrastructure development, logging, mining and plantation projects undertaken or facilitated by civil and military state authorities, foreign and domestic companies and armed ethnic groups.”

A KHRG interview in June 2012 with a Hpa-an District villager identified as Saw N—, shows the powerful forces lined up against villagers to stop them securing ownership of their land.

“This year the Tatmadaw [Burma Army] will completely confiscate the land and ask us to sign it away. Here you see they type the words as if they are the landowner. They ask us to sign but we didn’t sign. Now, they pressure us and they said, if we don’t sign, they would report us to the police, DKBA and Peace Council [ethnic armed militia] who will arrest the villagers.”

Saw Albert explains that during KHRG’s reporting period, villagers in all its seven geographic research areas had land confiscated as a result of “natural resource extraction.”

The KHRG report found that natural resource extraction and development projects expose villagers to threats of physical violence, forced labor, land confiscation, and are linked to flooding, deforestation and soil erosion.

“It Will Get Worse for Ethnic People…”

Professor Desmond Ball of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra says that while current democratic reforms in Myanmar are encouraging, he fears that in the short-term, the situation in some of the country’s ethnic areas will get worse. 

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“Local companies, often owned by Army personnel and backed up by Army units, will unquestionably move to displace ethnic peoples from land that might hold valuable minerals, or farmland expanses that can be used for commercial rice, rubber and corn plantations, or areas usable for important and profitable infrastructure projects.”

The situation is typical among fledgling democracies, he notes.

“As all countries emerge from civil war, one of the features of early democratization is to get rid of the ethnic minorities and take over their land and property. Burma is still a military country and all ethnic people know about the abuses, including land expropriation and forced displacement of villagers committed during major investment projects.”

If There’s Development There’s Displacement…

Despite the huge odds stacked against them, ethnic villagers in Southeast Myanmar are fighting back in an effort to keep their land.

In the past year, villagers have marched in protest, demonstrated on riverbanks, and formed alliances with civil society groups to pursue justice. In a protest this month, The Molo Women Mining Watch Network (MWMWN) and the Karenni Civil Society Network (KCSN) strongly condemned the decision by the Myanmar government to grant mining contracts inside Karenni State, an ongoing conflict zone.

The local groups claim that despite rich natural resources in Karenni state, local people have not benefited and that villagers have lost farmlands, mountains, rivers, livelihoods and villages due to forced relocation, land confiscation and environmental destruction related to the mining projects.

In southern Myanmar, villagers are learning how to work together to protest. Zaw Myo, 26, is an indigenous Tavoyan from the Dawei area in southern Burma, which has been targeted for a $60 billion mega-project that includes dams, industrial estates, highways, refineries and rail links. Fear of losing his ancestral land has turned him from farmer to land rights activist. He worries that if he does not fight back, his family will be forced off their four acres of farmland, their house and a one-acre garden plot that has been part of the family for generations.

“We are losing all our land,” he says. “The company made an unfair offer to our families for our land. We have been told we have no choice but to accept. My great grandfathers and great grandmothers were on this land since our village was settled.”

Zaw Myo says some villagers have been paid for their land without understanding the consequence of their actions. “They take the money without getting a contract, they don’t think of the future consequences for their families. For four acres we’d get around 300,000 kyat with no contract. People here don’t understand that they have sold all their plantation…the old trees that took years to grow – it’s a lot of work for the price of a second-hand motorbike.”

He goes on to describe what the villagers stand to lose by selling their land: “In our community there are 150 houses, two temples and a pagoda. Most of us are related, if something happens we help each other. We have our ghosts and our stories – we don’t want to lose them,” he says. “I’m a farmer, I went to the temple school. Now I’m learning how to fight for our land and our future.”

Meanwhile, KHRG’s Saw Albert says villagers need land protection and respect for their rights. “Current development projects do not bring benefits for villagers. They need schools, roads and bridges – development that improves their living standards. Development now is only about quick profits for the few,” he says.

“Mining pollutes the rivers they depend on for irrigation, drinking water and fishing. We’re not against development, but it has to benefit all communities.”

Nay Min, like Zaw Myo, is from the Dawei area and attends a workshop to learn how to fight for his land rights. Nay Min claims a foreign company dammed the river that provided water to his family’s land.

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As many as 23,000 people from 17 villages in the area will be deported, to make way for the deep sea port, according to a recent report by Karen News.

“Hsa Keh village is in Na Bu Le area, west of Dawei Town in Southern Burma. There is a beach as long as the eye can see. The land down to the beach is flat surround with green mountains rising behind,” the report stated.

The Dawei industry zone will be the largest in Southeast Asia and includes a 204-square-kilometer industry zone that will contain a petrol chemical complex, oil and gas refinery, steel mill and fertilizer plant, and a coal fire power plant.

Nay Min is devastated that his lands have now been polluted. “They flooded our land with salt water and we can’t grow our rice paddy – we have 30 rai. We talked to the company and the local authorities and they said they would compensate us, but in reality we were ignored and got nothing.”

Zaw Myo echoes Nay Min’s concerns. “I don’t want to move. This is my home…we’ve been here for generation after generation. We can’t grow in the area they (the government) want us to relocate to. Money will never be enough to pay for my home. I love it.”

Double Standards

The Netherlands-based Transnational Institute released a report in February 2013 –Developing Disparity – Regional Investment in Burma’s Borderlands – which raises concerns that while Myanmar is attracting increased investment from development it lacks the institutional and governance capacity to manage the impact on local communities.

The report notes that despite updated laws and regulations Myanmar “does not have the capacity or political will to ensure that such foreign investment is properly regulated.”

The report further adds, “The government’s regulatory policies and practices, particularly in the lucrative extraction industries, do not meet international standards.”

Moreover, projects paid for by foreign investment “do not meet their own domestic legal standards,” and “Thai and Chinese companies began logging along Burma’s border after these countries had banned domestic logging on environmental grounds.”

Headlines on the Karen News website in recent months detail numerous examples of displacement, land grabs, villagers demands for companies to return ancestral lands, protests, corruption, forced relocation, complaints of lack of proper compensation, copper mine pollution, homes bulldozed to make way for development, approvals for mining concessions and a lack of laws to protect farmers.

The TNI report notes that, “media reports, corroborated by NGO studies, indicate that land acquisitions for development projects are causing widespread social, economic and political instability.”

Besides getting media coverage for their land rights grievances, farmers are taking their complaints to the country’s lawmakers. TNI reports that the newly formed Land Acquisition Investigative Commission had received within months more than 2,000 land-conflict cases and that individual members of parliament had received hundreds of complaints.

But Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, in Chapter 1, Article 37, leaves no doubt over who owns the country’s land.

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It states that, “the Union [State] is the ultimate owner of all the land, and natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and within the atmosphere within its territorial boundary.”

KHRG’s Saw Albert says that the two new laws, the “Vacant Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law” and the “Farmland Law” passed by parliament in March 2012, do not benefit ethnic villagers and that farmers worry that land they rotate or have left to regenerate could be grabbed as “fallow” or “vacant.”

The KHRG report says the new laws allow the government to transfer “wasteland” to companies for the “purpose of agriculture production, livestock farming and aquaculture, mining and other purposes deemed to be in the long term national interest of the State or the public without any requirement to consult the local communities in the project area.”

A situation update written in June 2012 for the KHRG report by a community member from Thanton Township gives an example of how unscrupulous companies and corrupt government officials use the laws to steal villagers land.

“They came and made rubber plantations. The company owner cooperated with the [Burma Army] General. They came to the villages and looked for places where villagers have not done [anything with the land] yet, and then they said it is uncultivated land.”

Myanmar’s reforms have created a form of double-think among the international community – as indicated by a comment from a Washington-based government official who told Spectrum recently, “the narrative on Burma has to be positive, our bad news stories are Iraq and Afghanistan.”

It is the good or bad faith of agriculture policy, however, that will be key to the effectiveness of reforms, according to TNI.

“The politics of agrarian reform will determine whether the country’s political and economic changes will benefit the population overall, or only the urban elites.”

Phil Thornton is a Southeast Asia-based writer and author of Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border.