MUSE, Shan State — The border is booming with trade and development in eastern Burma’s Muse, where a constant stream of trucks flows daily from China delivering goods to Lashio, Mandalay and Rangoon. Businesspeople in the transitory Shan State town said things started changing at breakneck speed around 2011, when Burma initiated political and economic reforms under a new quasi-civilian government.
Muse’s border with Ruili, China, is marked by the Shweli River, newly flanked with buildings reaching higher and higher by the month. But the town’s rich mix of ethnic minorities—including Shan, Kachin, Palaung and Burmese—seems to be thinning out as the city itself becomes more dense and developed.
The rapidly expanding trade hub is fast falling prey to the scourge of Burma’s other proposed special economic zones (SEZs): skyrocketing land prices and loss of tenure rights. During a recent visit to Muse, locals told The Irrawaddy that the town has become a hotspot for land disputes, and rampant confiscation has gone unchecked despite a nationwide land rights movement and government promises to resolve outstanding claims.
Perhaps the biggest and most imminent threat comes from a government proposal to install a new airport, which would require some 500 acres of land otherwise home to modest houses and farms, according to local land rights activist Sai Aung. Township authorities, he said, have twice told residents that they need to leave the premises.
In two separate letters delivered in January, Muse’s Municipal Department told locals that the land was owned by the Myanmar Air Force, and they must vacate before the end of the month. The letters offered no compensation, he said, claiming that the area’s residents were illegal settlers on property owned by the Myanmar Air Force. Locals maintain that they have occupied the land since 1953, and in some cases plots had been used by the family for longer.
“We disagree with building an airport on our land,” Sai Aung said, explaining that residents had suggested that the facility be built in nearby Namkham instead, where the ground is low and flat.
Okkthara Sardi, a resident of Muse and herself a land rights activist, said land disputes were fast becoming the biggest problem in the town, particularly because the rapid increase in land value has prompted opportunism as well as legitimate tenure claims.
“As the economy grows, our town is running out of space. Look at those lands,” she said, pointing out into the distance. “No one used them in the past, but now they are building new things there and it’s causing problems for the local people.”
Because land values have shot up so quickly—one acre now costs about 100 million kyats, according to Sai Aung—some locals who had abandoned what used to be seen as worthless properties have come back and tried to reclaim them. While many others have legitimate claims to property, authorities view them in much the same light as those trying to cash in on recent economic growth.
No More Mercy?
The planned airport, parts of which have been demarcated but no work has begun on the land, has already caused all sorts of problems. Aside from private tenure claims of varying legitimacy, the project could displace an entire village of disabled citizens.
Mercy Land, a charity that houses, schools and employs people affected by leprosy and their families, was established by Sardi’s father, Min Myat Khaung, in the 1980s after he was granted a 10-acre concession by the trustees of the nearby Seven Dragons Pagoda as a reward for having built shrines in the area. An artist and a well-known figure in Muse, Min Myat Khaung said that now, some 30 years later, township authorities are trying to reclaim the land—which he had singlehandedly transformed from jungle into a sanctuary.
“I didn’t buy this land,” he told The Irrawaddy during a recent visit, “but they offered it to me as a price for building pagodas.”
Township authorities, he said, had even supported his plan to provide for those with leprosy, as they were unwanted in public due to severe social stigma. They began welcoming the township’s poor and dejected patients and their children. Sardi later built a school on the property, and became its head teacher. Mercy Land is now home to dozens of people, many disfigured by the disease and ostracized by much of society. Min Myat Khaung said that his years of providing for the population, so neglected by the government, have brought him great satisfaction.
“They become very happy after they come to stay on my land,” he said. “This is my intention and it’s why I built Mercy Land.”
Sardi said they will resist the pressure to leave, even it means risking their lives.
“As long as we have life, we will continue to stay here and protect our land,” she said, “even if they come to remove us with their bulldozers.”
A Familiar Tale
Muse is an average-sized township, its boundaries redrawn as recently as 2011. Upon visiting the area, The Irrawaddy found that land disputes permeated the area, as rising real estate prices shot through most corners of the town, affecting many of its 117,000 residents. Problems began, locals said, when Muse was tapped to become one of Burma’s SEZs and a local construction firm, New Star Light Co Ltd, was chosen to oversee the development for much of the zone’s infrastructure and a border crossing leading into Ruili.
Little is known about the firm, which locals said has been the main implementer of the zone’s infrastructure, hotel and manufacturing developments. Founded in 2008 by Kyaw Kyaw Win, a Mandalay-based entrepreneur, New Star Light is a familiar name among those who claim to have lost their land.
As familiar is the name of Sai Ohn Myint, the nephew of Burma’s Vice President Sai Mauk Kham. An engineer at the helm of the Great Hor Kham Plc, according to the Myanmar Engineering Society, Sai Ohn Myint has been contracted for several projects in Muse, and has been repeatedly accused of unfairly acquiring lands and selling them to New Star Light.
Sai Haing Hang Pa, an ethnic Shan resident of Muse, said his mother was one example. She lost four acres of family land, he said, in 2009. Sai Ohn Myint repeatedly called their household on the phone to offer compensation, he said, but they didn’t want to sell it. While the property was dormant for some time, the family still owned it and intended to build a house there.
“When we went back to clean our land, they told us that we didn’t own it anymore,” said his mother, Daw Saw May. The family has been to court about 10 times to try to resolve the dispute, but the case seems to be headed nowhere, they said.
Sai Aung, the land rights activist advocating for those threatened by the new airport, said the story is always the same for local landowners in the wake of a rapid major development like the Muse SEZ.
“Only a small group of rich people get benefits, and locals don’t gain anything from this project,” he said.