Report Urges Govt to Address Land Grabbing Issue

Farmers rally in Rangoon on Oct. 27, 2012, to protest against the confiscation of their land. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

A report released today by the international NGO Displacement Solutions calls on Burma’s government to immediately take steps to address the serious lack of housing, land and property (HLP) rights across the county.

The report specifically urges the government to take measures to curb “land grabbing, speculation and displacement with a range of new policies and legislation, including a moratorium on arbitrary forced displacement.”

The current rush of foreign investment into Burma’s agricultural and natural resource sectors, which are  expected to grow significantly over the next few years, combined with what the report calls an “almost universal tenure insecurity in both rural and urban areas,” will lead to an increasing number of Burma’s overwhelmingly rural population becoming landless, the report warns.

According to the report, the policy decisions that Burma’s government makes during the coming months regarding the transfer of what is officially state land into privately held assets “will set in place a policy direction that will have a marked impact on the future development of the country and the day-to-day circumstances in which people live.”

Current government policy and the existing rules and regulations overwhelmingly favor wealthy connected business people over the impoverished majority, says the report’s co-author Scott Leckie.

If reform isn’t implemented now, “lower and middle income groups won’t be able to get housing and overall you’ll have a situation of growing insecurity and more and more people facing evictions,” Leckie told The Irrawaddy during a phone interview.

It’s not too late to act, suggests the report, titled “Myanmar at the HLP Crossroads: Proposals for Building an Improved Housing, Land and Property Rights Framework that Protects the People and Supports Sustainable Economic Development.”

The report specifically calls on Burma’s government to hold a wide-ranging public consultation with stakeholders from all levels, including the rural and urban poor, to ensure that the changes underway in Burma do not leave them behind.

“Despite the difficulties associated with addressing HLP issues head on, failing to address these concerns will neither benefit society at large nor those who need protection—the lower income groups in society,” says Leckie.

Less than 18 months into Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government there is ample evidence that the land reform currently underway will actually worsen things for the estimated 80 percent of Burma’s population who live in rural areas. The report notes that recent legislation enacted by Burma’s government, including the Farmland Law, has meant that farmers and the urban poor “are probably even more vulnerable to possible loss of land and displacement and dispossession than they had been under the previous regime.”

Under the legal framework in place today, “the state continues to own all land in the country and whatever rights over land that are accorded are exclusively leasehold rights, user rights, or rights to cultivate a certain land parcel subject to the approval of local government bodies that are appointed by the central government,” the report states.

While Burma’s small-scale tenant farmers do not actually officially own the land they have worked on for generations, the process to get title to the their land as stipulated under the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law enacted on March 30, 2012, puts peasant farmers at a serious disadvantage because they have to deal with a corrupt bureaucracy consisting of the same people who oppressed them for years.

Leckie believes that one way to empower the rural poor is the establishment of a barefoot lawyers program, similar to longstanding rural doctors initiatives, in which lawyers versed in HLP rights travel across rural communities to help farmers deal with the complex land rights challenges they face.

Since Thein Sein became president in April 2011, a series of large-scale development projects have caused serious upheaval in rural areas across the country, including in and around the planned Dawei special economic zone and along the Shwe gas and oil pipeline project that will send fuel from Burma’s Arakan coast to China.

While impoverished rural residents have been forcibly evicted from their land to make way for these billion-dollar projects, well-connected insiders have made quick fortunes in legally questionable speculatory land deals.

In recent months the expansion of the Monywa copper mine by Chinese weapon’s firm Norinco has triggered unprecedented demonstrations from angry farmers who have not been compensated for the loss of their land.

These kinds of protests—once unheard of in Burma—will become very common if Burma’s government and vested economic interests continue to trample the rights of rural people while imposing development from above, says the long-exiled ’88 generation student leader Moe Thee Zun.

The growing number of landless people in the country is the single biggest issue in Burma today, Moe Thee Zun told The Irrawaddy—a conclusion he reached last month during his first visit inside the country in two decades.

The Displacement Solutions report may also prove to be a wake-up call for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which has so far been slow to respond to what the Asian Human Rights Commission warns is a coming “land-grabbing epidemic” in Burma.

“We’re hopeful that the NLD will make HLP rights a cornerstone of their policy,” says Leckie.

While Suu Kyi has only vaguely and infrequently addressed the issue of land grabbing during the numerous speeches she has made since her release from house arrest in November 2010, her former colleagues in the breakaway National Democratic Front (NDF) have taken a more public stand on the issue.

The NDF’s chief for Kachin State Bawk Ja has for the past few years led a determined campaign to overturn a series of land confiscations that took place in the state’s fertile Hukawng Valley. The target of her campaign is the Yuzana company, a firm behind one of the largest land grabs in modern Burma, whose owner Htay Myint is widely regarded as a close friend of former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

Beginning in 2006, Yuzana, with the assistance of then Northern Region Military Commander Maj-Gen Ohn Myint, expropriated more than than 200,000 acres of farmland from hundreds of local Kachin farming families in order to create large-scale plantations of cassava and sugarcane for export to China.

“When Yuzana took our land, we were left with nothing. Before we had plenty of food, but now my family can barely survive,” said a 26-year-old Kachin women whose small-scale family farm in the Hukawng Valley was expropriated in 2006.

Now living in Mai Ja Yang, a town under the control of the Kachin Independence Organization, she said that most of her extensive immediate family remains in the Hukawng valley without land or steady employment. Adding to their woes, she said that can’t visit her family because of the increasingly violent conflict taking place across Kachin State.

The authors of her family’s misfortune, Htay Myint and Ohn Myint, won seats in Burma’s Parliament in 2010, where both individuals are alleged to have used their leverage to ensure that land reform in Burma continues to benefit Yuzana and other well-connected firms.

The struggle for land rights doesn’t just affect ethnic minorities in remote corners of country, but also includes the suburbs of Rangoon. Nay Myo Wai, the chairman of the Peace and Diversity Party, a small party based in Mingaladon Township, has been campaigning on behalf of local farmers locked in a heated dispute with the Zaykabar company, who the farmers allege unfairly acquired their land during the Than Shwe era. Like Yuzana, Zaykabar is headed by a notorious military crony, Khin Shwe, who also serves in Parliament as a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

One way to prevent firms like Zaykabar and Yuzana from uprooting thousands more peasant farmers across Burma is for new laws that explicitly recognize the customary land ownership of the local communities, says Leckie.

“The government needs to acknowledge that customary land rights are a reality in Burma for a large percentage of people both in ethnic and in Burman areas especially in terms of inheritance and succession.”

While Leckie remains optimistic that an equitable and fair land reform policy could still be adopted by Burma’s rulers, he acknowledges that the struggle will be a difficult one as many members of the country’s elite benefit from unjust and unfair policies.

“There is a reluctance to embrace more equitable rights and instead maintain the status quo, which is clearly biased in favor of more powerful and wealthy sectors.”

3 Responses to Report Urges Govt to Address Land Grabbing Issue

  1. The Burmese Freedom Fighter

    A good leadership skill is in its highest demand of at all time; it can only overrun the old practice of being bossy. A boss creates fear, a leader confidence. A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects mistakes. A boss knows all, a leader asks questions. A boss makes work drudgery, a leader makes it interesting. The government has to be a good leader, whose ears’ always rang by the voices of suffering people. After all, all the arising causes of individual property rights are not that much less different than that of their government to safe social structure of Burma for its sustainability and its fairness for all the citizens. 

    The history of Burma has shown that Burmese are very resilient to oppression and coercion, but cooperative when their voices are respected to reach sensible solution to whatever problems that comes out of long term mismanagement of successive governments. Participatory approach will surely serve common interest of Burma. Given the fact that all the existing so called national development projects are done at the cost of ordinary people in a very fearful reckless bossy manner for a half century, it is well deserved to have conciliatory discussion about the best outcome of all arising issues. Do not let patient of the resilient Burmese run out for it will surely provoke imminent confrontation that will destroy the prospect of peaceful solution between the people and military cronies.

    This is a giant opportunity for current government to show its leadership skills. The day people stop bringing the government their problems is the day government have stopped leading them. People have either lost confidence that government can help or concluded the government does not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. 

    The Burmese Freedom Fighter

  2. George Than Setkyar Heine

    Hear ye all people!
    Than Shwe is the AUTHOR and CULPRIT of the PREVAILING WOES and MAYHEM REIGNING in BURMA today I say.
    He set the stage for a RE-RUN of WHAT HAPPENED in Europe CENTURIES AGO trust me.
    The landlords SPLIT the SPOILS with the barons and in turn the kings’ wallets FATTENED as well of course.
    And the citizenry (ordinary people and peasants) sweated and finally died in BONDAGE and SLAVERY in due course of time and work while the kings, barons and landlords PROSPER and thus their POSTERITY guaranteed  as well. 
    Than Shwe took/sold the LANDS and BUILDINGS in addition to the COUNTRY’S NATURAL RESOURCES as well and HANDED his CRONIES their SHARE of the LOOT – lands specifically, joint projects/ventures with Chinese companies and other aliens’ under different guises and authority – before he MADE HIS DISAPPEARING ACT into the shadowy corridors of power in the tunnels of Naypyidaw today. 
    And he left a WEAKENED and UNDERMANNED ARMY in the HANDS of the Chinese picked C-in-C Min Aung Hlaing after FORCEFULLY REMOVING – SWALLOWING HIS OWN SPIT –  his choice Gen. Thura Myint Aung, former C-in-C of the Burma Army whose whereabouts still remained a MYSTERY together with his family until today.
    As a result, the Burma Army is BROKE today, surviving on HANDOUTS from Than Shwe. And Palaung activists today alleged Min Aung Hlaing’s outfit (Burma Army) is NO MORE THAN A MERCENARY FORCE under the pay of the Chinese communists today OBLIGED to or UNDER ORDERS to BRING KIA/Kachins to HEEL for the Chinese to complete and meet their projects/interests in 2013 and further annexation of Burma as a PROVINCE of CHINA ultimately of course.
    Until and unless LAND GRABBING by the Than Shwe’s CRONIES are ADDRESSED – returned to the farmers and people of the country – and the CULPRITS (Khin Shwe, Htay Myint, Win Myint amongst many others running amok in Burma)are BOOKED and JUSTICE SERVED and LAWS GOVERNING EQUAL DISTRIBUTION of WEALTH among the people mainly ethnic minorities as well are in place Daw Suu led people of Burma SHOULD NOT REST and that APPLIES for Min Ko Naing and his colleagues and students of the country no less as well for that matter I say.

  3. Burmese government needs to tackle this issue immediately. Mr President has to override the way the previous administration handled the nation. Wealthy families do not need the government but we the poor and oppressed ones need protection from the government. It is a shame that the old things are still alive and haunting us today. Mr. President and the Rule of Law Committee need to step up and halt land grabbing problems as quick as possible. 

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