Land confiscation is rife in Myanmar. Confiscation of land for plantations, Special Economic Zones, development projects or for use by the military or other armed groups has affected Myanmar for decades. Today, following the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the easing of sanctions on the country, bringing an increase in foreign capital for development projects, the pace of land confiscation shows no signs of slowing down. The scale of the seizures is not accurately known but in 2016 the Farmers Affairs Committee stated that countrywide seizures could be as high as 2 million acres.
The seizures, which are particularly high in ethnic areas, are one of the biggest factors in social unrest and are hindering the restitution of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. They have also led to thousands of civilians being forcibly evicted from their homes. According to Aung Kyaw Thu, at the time the Complaint and Appeal Letter Review and Assessment Committee chair, the majority of complaint letters received by the Mon State Hluttaw (the state legislature) related to land disputes.
A number of factors underpin the confiscations. In 2012 two new government land acts, the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Act and the Farmland Act were introduced. These acts, which have been widely and repeatedly criticized, have made it much easier for land to be seized on spurious premises. There is also significant confusion regarding the landforms and paperwork required to own, lease, and work on land. Such confusion favors the government and its associated business partners. These laws fail to recognize customary land rights of communities with Myanmar. This means, according to Peter Yeung and Carlotta Dotto, “that the farmers don’t officially own the land, and businesses have literally been taking it by force.”
There is a dearth of legal avenues available for farmers; complaints are seldom upheld and legal proceedings, which often take place in district headquarters, are expensive, often too expensive for farmers to afford. While some farmers and villagers do eventually get their land returned, this process can take decades and compensation is seldom adequate. Many more simply do not get the land back at all.
The lack of legal justice has not stopped farmers from protesting or exercising their agency. However, when farmers do stand up for their rights, or, if they return to their land to harvest their plantation, they can be they can be arrested, jailed, and beaten. The large majority receive no justice for these abuses.
2012 saw the rise of the plow protests, a form of demonstration in which farmers plowed seized or disputed land to symbolize their ownership of their land. The government cracked down and arrested the protesters, yet protests have continued. Land rights activists are often detained for trespassing when returning to their own land, or for mischief and statements conducive to public mischief under sections 427, 447, and 505b of the penal code. Others are sentenced under the Public Property Protection Act.
Despite the risk of speaking out, land rights activist will not be silenced. On December 24, 2018, more than a hundred farmers protested in Lemyethnha Township in Irrawaddy Division, demanding the official return of their confiscated land. On January 20, 2019, farmers in Pyin Oo Lwin Township held a press conference calling for the return of confiscated land. That same month, 500 marched in Chin State protesting against the state government’s expansion of urban projects. Then on February 5, farmers in Sittpin village, Yangon region, protested, demanding the return of their seized land. On February 17, 250 farmers protested in Mingaladon Township in Rangoon about inadequate compensation offered by the local government for their land that was seized back in 1992. This is just a handful of examples of protests taking place across the country and it is clear they will continue until land has been rightfully returned.
As a result of these ongoing and continued protests, land rights activists make up a large proportion of political prisoners within Myanmar. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at the end of February 2019 at least 30 farmers and land rights activists were in jail awaiting trial and 103 are awaiting trial on bail. Some of those awaiting trial without bail have been in prison for years, despite never being convicted of a crime. For example, land right activist Zaw Win has been awaiting trial in Obo prison since 2014 and has suffered from a number of health issues while incarcerated. In September 2018, three elderly villagers, two of whom were said to be in ill health, were denied bail for protesting against being forced to give up their land without compensation. Others, such as Htay Aung, have even been killed for their involvement in such protests.
The incarceration of such farmers has dire livelihood implications for their families. Moreover, torture, overcrowding, and poor healthcare facilities and abuse within prisons in Myanmar are rife. As a result, it is likely that many farmers, when eventually returned to the fields upon, bear the physical legacies of torture.
Here there are two clear issues. The first is the seizure of land, which often has remained in families for generations and serves as a strong connection between farmers and their identity. Stopping the seizures, returning the land back to its rightful owners, and having government recognition of ethnic communities’ indigenous claims to land will be an important step forward to building trust between the central government and ethnic minorities.
The second issue is the harassment and arbitrary detention of farmers when they exercise their democratic right to speak out. Not only do the customary land rights of farmers need to be recognized, but so does the freedom of expression of land rights activists. A number of high-profile political prisoners cases in Myanmar have rightfully captured the world’s attention, whereas the struggle of ethnic farmers and land rights activists standing up to the government is not known at all, either domestically or internationally. That has to change.
Maximillian Mørch is a freelance journalist and researcher based on the Thailand-Myanmar border. He currently works for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). Follow him on Twitter: @max_morch