Land Grabs Intensify as Burma ‘Reform’ Races Ahead of Law

Burmese farmers protest the confiscation of their land at a rally in downtown Rangoon on Oct. 27, 2011. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Burmese farmers protest the confiscation of their land at a rally in downtown Rangoon on Oct. 27, 2011. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

While foreign governments heap praise on the Burmese government’s liberal tilt, land theft appears to be increasing as state agencies and powerfully placed domestic firms position themselves to welcome foreign investment.

Farmers across the country are being muscled out of their fields with little hope of appeal to the law. This is because despite all the trumpeting in the West about President Thein Sein’s “reforms,” the rule of law in Burma is closer to 12th Century Europe than the 21st Century.

In medieval Europe, land ownership was determined by sharp swords and private armies. In present-day Burma, powerful businesses linked to the army do much the same.

Land confiscation is being reported near the south coast, in the Rangoon region, around Mandalay and in northern areas close to the border with China.

Farmers and their families are being forcibly moved for major projects, such as the oil and gas pipelines being built through the country from the Bay of Bengal to the Chinese border, and for smaller industrial projects by firms with long crony links to the military.

Even where the local authorities have sided with expelled farmers, big businesses feel confident enough to ignore them. Just last week, The Irrawaddy reported how industrial firm Zay Kabar has continued to bulldoze snatched land despite a stop order issued by the administrative office of the Rangoon area’s Mingaladon Township.

Zay Kabar is owned by Khin Shwe, a member of Parliament for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

“[Burma] faces new challenges, notably as former military personnel move into new roles in other sectors including industry, carrying with them their previous authority,” the Asian Human Rights Commission said in a recent submission to United Nations Human Rights Council.

“The convergence of the military, government agents and business is an enormously dangerous development, as can been seen in the increasingly grave problem of land-grabbing.”

The commission alleged that 70 percent of court cases in Burma are “decided in part or whole by the payment of money. As economic boom increases the money within the system, the effect of corruption will only grow.”

Business investment risk assessor Maplecroft, based in Britain, says that despite the widespread praise for supposed political reforms, Burma continues to come to the top of its poor rule of law index. It says the government continues to dictate judicial decisions.

“Tangible improvements in the rule of law, including increased judicial independence and greater transparency in the regulatory system, will be required before the long-term potential of the economy can be realized,” Maplecroft says.

Claiming ownership of a slice of land, especially in potential development areas around the bigger conurbations or tourist attractions, will enhance Burmese businesses looking to attract wealthier foreign investment partners.

Land ownership has been vague since the 1960s when most of it was nationalized during the socialist reign of Ne Win. Successive military rules have eroded the rule of law so that questions of ownership depend more on political influence or money than any historic right.

A new land law is supposed to be under debate in the Burmese Parliament but it has been subject to very little open analysis and some observers think it will merely strengthen the ability of military-linked businesses to claim they are acting within the law when they decide they want a piece of land.

“Existing laws do little to prevent confiscation by government-aligned figures, and that looks set to continue if a bill currently being debated in Parliament comes into force,” said a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma. “The Land Act will effectively allow powerful tycoons to monopolize arable land and force off small-scale farmers,” it concluded.

One of the biggest land grabs has occurred in recent weeks in Sagaing Division, where scores of people in three villages have been ordered to leave their homes in a bid to take over 7,500 acres, reportedly for copper mining projects.

The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), run by the military in various guises, and Chinese businesses are involved in these land confiscations.

“These incidents mirror what has gone on in China over the past 20 or more years as the economic boom has demanded more and more agricultural land for projects ranging from coal mines to hydroelectric dam systems,” Hong Kong energy industries analyst Jeff mead told The Irrawaddy. “The absence of a proper rule of law has made it difficult for people to resist but today in China there is a more emboldened public prepared to make protests heard.”

One positive consequence of the current reformed-minded government is that aggrieved people in Burma are less frightened of publicly objecting to injustice. This is illustrated by the legal action being taken this month by several farmers who had land confiscated from them last year in the Mandalay area.

About 40 acres of the farmers’ land was taken by yet another military body, the Bureau of Air Defense, in cahoots with a firm called High Tech Concrete, which is owned by noted army-linked businessman Aik Tun.

Such bold action is not without serious risks though. Five farmers in the Magwe Division who sued UMEH and the Htoo Trading Company last year over land confiscation ended in prison.

The farmers’ land was taken to build a caustic soda factory. The farmers were jailed for allegedly offensive comments, trespass and “violation” of the law.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific warned last week that although Burma seems to be on the brink of “tremendous opportunity,” there remained a danger that the chief beneficiaries would be the well-placed business cronies of the military establishment.

All the signs are that without the rule of law and an independent judiciary, this is exactly what’s happening.


8 Responses to Land Grabs Intensify as Burma ‘Reform’ Races Ahead of Law

  1. So how long are the people going to put up with even more land grab.

    This is exactly the same military thugs in different clothes and the so-called the big presidents and prime ministers around the world are simply getting on with them for THEIR own gain. Wake up people.

    It’s all very well to put the faith in NLD but before long there will be nothing left for any one to save,,

    Make a list of how many people got killed, tortured and who much land robbed with or without Aung San Suu Kyi around.

    These thugs are getting STRONGER not weaker as this democracy thing is supposed to do.

    Just because Than Shwe borrowed money in the people’s name and build Big, Big building and call it “parliament”, it doesn’t mean any less land confiscation. More and more as there is now support by Aung San Suu Kyi. Even the killings in the North getting worse is now OK.

    All the businessmen singing up in Rangoon now are for more land grab. Yet people couldn’t stop cheering their own executioners!!!

    Waiting forever for Aung San Suu Kyi who went to soccer with Zaw Zaw to come down and help out! May be in next life. Unbelievable!!!

  2. “The convergence of the military, government agents and business is an enormously dangerous development, as can been seen in the increasingly grave problem of land-grabbing.”

    Put NLD and all the wannabe politicians in it as well.

    People- wake up. You are on your own.

  3. The Ordinary People of Burma

    All these senseless rush in land seizures are fools wishful thinking and no regards for fellow Burmese livelihoodsand welfare that reveals the inner selfish and greedy wants.

    All these are fools gold and illegal worthless hoardings of properties belonging to the people of Burma.

    All these must be returned to our country and the people; and the Rule of Law established; and the relevant Ministers sacked and their cronies must return all illegally seized properties.

  4. We, farmer, and citizens or Myanmar really need a law that protect our private property right. We owned our farm and agriculture land in the honest way but If authority wants to take, we just have to give to them. If we defend our right, we are arrested and put in jail. This is a disaster for us. We would like to get support from every people to help us. Please help us as soon as possible.

  5. Greed by ugly people is a terrible thing. What is needed still is safety, health and education- for all.

    ALL land and business acquisitions of the last years and now will need to be recorded and re-assessed, re-examined and be held accountable- just as war trials occurred later.

    No-one takes this lot seriously, but there are hopes.

  6. George Than Setkyar Heine

    Their (CRONIES) lands, property and ill-gotten wealth would HELP NONE for their SALVATiION – immunity from the law – when they GO IN THE DOCKS – in front of the SPECIAL TRIBUNAL in Insein Prison or at the INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT – CHARGED as ACCESSORIES to CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY/WAR CRIMES committed by the men in uniforms and civilian attire HOLDING SWAY at Naypyidaw today.
    Of course the PEOPLE WOULD GET THE LAST LAUGH.
    However, IT IS CONDITIONAL on HOW FAR Daw Suu COULD GO in Thein Sein’s PUPPET PARLIAMENT and HOW LONG/STRONG the US led West COULD SAFEGUARD Daw Suu’s SCALP from NOW, BEFORE and BEYOND 2015 I wonder.

  7. First farmers sell their lands at the price they happily agreed,Then they gamble it out and when they loose all out, they want their land back. these farmers are not that innocent either.

  8. And it is now legal for “foreign investors” to go into partnership with the regime legally and abuse and exploit our people.

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