RANGOON — The Burma Army and local authorities have colluded with well-connected rubber companies to grab thousands of acres of land from ethnic minority villagers in northern Shan State in the years before the democratic transition began, a new report by Global Witness has found.
An 18-month investigation by the London-based natural resources watchdog implicated North East Region Command leaders, including current Agriculture and Irrigation Minister Myint Hlaing, Lashio District officials and the ruling party in forcibly seizing large swathes of land in Shan State’s Lashio District and the Wa Special Region’s Hopan Township.
Global Witness said in a press release on Thursday that most of these land confiscations “took place in 2006 when, under the veneer of the nationwide ‘Privatization Program,’ generals were transferring public assets and natural resources into private ownership, reportedly to ensure that they and their associates retained economic control post-transition.”
The report named “Guns, Cronies and Crops” is the first in-depth investigation into land-grabbing in Burma by Global Witness, which has earned an international reputation for exposing abuse of power and government corruption in natural resource exploitation.
The group warned that land confiscation for plantation farming by powerful actors is rapidly increasing in Burma as its economy grows and opens up to outside investment following the transition from military to nominally civilian rule in 2011.
By 2013, 5.3 million acres—an area 35 times the size of Rangoon—had been leased to investors in agro-industrial farming of crops such as rubber, palm oil and sugarcane, “the majority without the consent of its owners,” the report said. “Rubber plantations alone cover more than a quarter of this area. This rush for land is decimating the livelihoods of Myanmar’s people, 70 per cent of which rely on farmland and forests.”
Worldwide demand for rubber and latex prices have been on the rise for years, largely fueled by demand from China’s growing economy, and rubber plantations have spread rapidly throughout Southeast Asia. In Cambodia and Laos land-grabbing has taken on epidemic proportions and hundreds of thousands of farmers have been affected, a scenario that could now unfold in Burma’s uplands.
Global Witness said the government should compensate communities affected by the land seizures in northern Shan State. It also urged Naypyidaw to use the current drafting process for the Land Use Policy as an opportunity to formulate better land rights protection for farmers.
Josie Cohen, Global Witness’ land campaigner, said during a report launch in Rangoon that under Burma’s current laws and policies farmers have no way of obtaining legal documents proving land ownership, adding that they could only prove extended land use by showing receipts of land taxes they have paid.
She said the new Land Use Policy could recognize these receipts as proof of land ownership, while ethnic minorities’ customary law for land use should be incorporated into Burma’s legal framework. “Our key recommendation in terms of looking forward is respecting customary tenure… in particular for ethnic minority land, and recognizing shifting cultivation,” Cohen said.
Army Supported Land Grabs From Minorities
Global Witness carried out a detailed investigation into the land seizures in Lashio District and Hopan Township, collecting 10 official documents and interviewing more than 140 people, including farmers, officials and former army officers. It found the military helped Sein Wut Hmon Company Ltd and other local actors seize hillside land used by Kachin, Shan and Palaung minority villagers for traditional shifting cultivation in order to turn it into rubber plantations that produce latex for export to nearby China.
Eleven villages that are home to some 20,000 people lost farmland, Global Witness said, adding that villagers were intimidated by soldiers that helped carry out the seizures, while none had been consulted about or compensated for their loss of livelihood.
Sein Wut Hmon Company is owned by Maung Myint and seized 4,608 acres (1,862 hectares), the report said, more than any other rubber company in Shan State. Maung Myint denied in a letter to Global Witness that his firm forcibly seized land with the help of the army.
The group also said it had also documented an illegal 1,300-acre seizure of land in Lashio District’s Tarpone Village-tract by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2010, although it added that the land appeared to be unused.
The organization said its investigation concluded that Light Infantry Division 68 conducted most of the land seizures for Sein Wut Hmon Company in cooperation with Lashio District Land Statistics Department, adding that Maj. Myo Yee had been the leading officer in the field during these operations.
The group said army support for such seizures could not have taken place unless carried out on direct orders of the North East Regional Command, which from 2001 until approximately May 2006 was led by Myint Hlaing, the current minister of agriculture and irrigation. The report said it sent a letter to the minister to inquire about the allegations, but received no response.
Global Witness said the confiscations appeared to be part of a process of “Burmanisation” of resources in conflict-affected northern Shan State. It said there is a structural lack of legal land protection in Burma for ethnic minorities, while, “Plantation operators overwhelmingly decline to employ labor from local ethnic minority communities, prefer ring instead to bring in migrant workers.”
Sai Maung Tin, an Upper House lawmaker with the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, said in a reaction to the report’s findings that he had limited knowledge of the issue of land seizures in northern Shan State, but he urged the authorities to take steps to return the land to its original owners.
“The land that was taken needs to be returned soonest and it has to be given back to the people who really own it,” he said.
The Irrawaddy was unable to immediately contact the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation to seek a response to the allegations.
Additional reporting by Yen Snaing.