In Muse, Promise and Perils of Development Redux

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 12 December 2014

MUSE, Shan State — The Muse Central Economic Zone project, spearheaded by the Shan State government and a local private venture, is moving forward in an effort to boost commerce along the Chinese border, despite land grievances from some local residents.

Located on the banks of Shweli River in Muse, a major trading hub on the Sino-Burmese border, the nearly 300-acre space allotted for the economic zone has been undergoing development since 2012. The project aims to establish six zones that will include residential areas, shop houses, hotels, shopping areas, a jade market and other business-related infrastructure, according to Ngwe Soe, the project director of the New Star Light Company, which is implementing the project jointly with the Shan State government.

Muse is the largest trading point between Burma and China, and has long served as the conduit through which Burmese exports and Chinese imports pass. Proponents of the economic zone say the plan will be a major boon for cross-border commerce.

The project covers about 295 acres, with investment by the Mandalay-based New Star Light expected at 94 billion kyats (US$94 million).

Developers are aiming to complete the project by 2017, after opening a Zone 1 phase in May of next year. The 89-acre Zone 1 will include condominiums, shop houses, a jade bazaar, hotels and an Ocean supermarket.

“We plan to open Zone 1 next year, 80 percent of construction is finished,” Ngwe Soe said.

However, beginning in 2009, residents living on the allocated economic zone land have been forced to relocate in exchange for compensation from New Star Light. Like many development projects in Burma, the economic zone has provoked a backlash from some affected landholders who claim the compensation that they have been offered is inadequate.

Sai Ike, 58, has yet to be paid for his one acre of land, which he said the company “grabbed” from him.

“My parents had been cultivating paddy on their land since I was young. I was continuing to do that, but the company grabbed my land to develop this area. Although I don’t have an official land ownership record issued by the government, I have some receipts showing that I paid [land] taxes to the government,” he said.

“My little land plot was grabbed by the company during the harvest season. There’s nothing left, everything has been destroyed by the company.”

New Star Light says it has compensated those relocated using on a four category system based on how the land was used by its owners. Project director Ngwe Soe said the company paid compensation in accordance with the four-tier system, as well as a sum deemed equivalent to the value of any crops cultivated by the compensated party.

“There are only 17 acres remaining that have yet to be compensated, the rest of the landowners have already received compensation,” Ngwe Soe said.

“Except for these remaining landowners, the rest of the people agreed to take compensation for their lands.”

He defended the compensation scheme, saying the company was offering at minimum more than double the government’s fixed price of 3 million kyats per acre for even landholders who lack official land ownership records.

“The district and township authorities collaborated with us when dispensing compensation. Even if they don’t have ownership records, if they have receipts from dealings with the government for crops, we have paid them,” Ngwe Soe said.

Some former landowners, however, claim that the compensation amounts, which they say they were effectively forced to take, were well below current market rates.

Ei Phyu, a holdout who has not taken the compensation offered, spoke to The Irrawaddy from seven acres of land within the project area that is increasingly surrounded by development.

“They offered me 80 million kyats for seven acres of land. I have not taken it to date. I won’t give my land up for this project because the market land prices in this area are rising. It has reached 700 million to 1 billion [kyats] for one acre on the market,” she said.

Hlaing Han Pha, who was relocated, said his parents had owned seven acres of land in the project area that they were forced to give up when the project was first put forward in 2009.

“One of New Star Light’s subcontractors, Great Haokham Company’s MD [managing director] Sai Ohn Myint, told us to sell our lands, but we refused. Then, without our knowledge, he changed our land to his name in the government’s land records department,” he said.

“We’ve been offered 3 million kyats for each acre as compensation by him. He said if we don’t accept this amount, we will not get more money and will lose our land. … Now, we just want our land back,” Hlaing Han Pha said.

Development projects including the Thilawa and Dawei special economic zones (SEZs) and smaller-scale private ventures have faced similar difficulties as Burma’s government seeks to spur growth in the long-isolated economy.

The Muse Central Economic Zone was initiated by Vice President Sai Mauk Kham, who is a Muse native. In his second visit to Muse as vice president last October, he urged the project team to negotiate with former landowners to resolve the compensation issue.

For those holdouts still residing on the 17 acres of as yet uncompensated land, Ho Saung village may serve as an inspiration, after its inhabitants’ recalcitrance forced project developers to redraw their plans.

“We’ve extended our project beyond the original map because we can’t take seven acres, which are owned by one group [in Ho Saung],” Ngwe Soe said.