Tears for Myanmar: why Aung San Suu Kyi must act on land grabs

Myanmar’s Foreign Minister? Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012. Htoo Tay Zar/Wikimedia Commons

By Dung Phan

These are optimistic days for Myanmar as investors, aid workers and donors disembark en masse – full of promises for reform and rejuvenation. But behind the flurry of trade and development projects, many people shed tears for the lives they once had.

Development is an inevitable part of Myanmar’s reform plans, many of which exploit its position at the crossroads of Asia. And now large swathes of farmland are being made available to foreign-based companies. But at a heavy price. 

A number of the lush fields where Myanmar’s farmers once earned their livelihoods are now mere industrial landscaping. “Because we don’t have those lands any more, we became poor people who have to work as labourers for others,” said Hla Ohn May, a 46-year-old farmer. “I cried every day when I saw all those buildings.”

According to government data, the amount of land handed to private companies increased by as much as 900% from the mid­-1990s to mid-­2000s and now totals about 5% of the country’s agricultural land. For a long time this land was confiscated with little or no compensation. 

More than 60% of Myanmar’s 53 million people live in rural areas. And despite the release of hundreds of political prisoners and a historic move toward democracy, Myanmar’s laws have still kept the country’s farmers among the poorest people in Asia. Of this population, about one-third are landless agricultural labourers.

“Since they took all the lands, we farmers can’t do anything about it but cry,” farmer Ko Win Oo said. “We can’t do anything but watch. Even if we wanted to, we are not allowed to work on those fields.”

To add insult to injury, even when farmers were granted rights to cultivate land they have no choice in what they plant. Myanmar’s laws require them to grow what the government or the local military commander wants.

Foreign investors’ worries

This land battle is also hindering investment. No foreign company wants to be involved in land contests and the bad reputation they can bring. A committee which has explored cases of “land grabs” reported since 1988 says it had received about 17,000 complaints; most of the alleged victims are farmers.

In the wider context, new business projects might well bring promising job opportunities and higher minimum wages for citizens. However, the poorer population in Myanmar is set to its agricultural livelihood. Many people choose to stay in remote areas and in these circumstances, land is a priceless asset.

“Land is not just a matter of a map or an area,” said Shwe Thein, head of the NGO Land Core Group working on land rights in Myanmar. “Land rights are the basic requirement to ensure livelihoods and food security for people in this country. They are important for their culture, traditional practices and also their social cohesion. Land is their life.”

But there does not seem to be any easy way to address the land conflicts between businesses, government and farmers. “The main advice for foreign investors is: don’t rely on lawyers,” said Vicky Bowman, a former British ambassador to Myanmar. “Even if the documents say, ‘These people signed over the ownership’, it can still be dodgy. You need to do the due diligence to understand why they signed. For example, was it under duress?”

Another former British diplomat who has worked in Myanmar added, “There is every chance anyone who buys land will find themselves in a dispute.”

The dilemma of solving land disputes

The new Suu Kyi government has started to deal with land-grab cases. In June alone, 6,434 acres of land was returned to 324 villagers, said the local media. Things, however, won’t be easy.

“Whether or not these cases will be solved depends on whether the National League for Democracy (NLD) has a good relationship with the military commander-in-chief,” said Myint Naing, the director of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters.

The vast majority of land was taken in the 1990s and early 2000s by the junta government and many key ministerial posts including defence, border affairs and internal affairs are still subject the military control. The new administration will therefore have to delicately deal with decade-old disputes while finding ways to avoid creating new ones.

And among the challenges of addressing these cases are both the complexity of the situations themselves, as well as the absence of the necessary papers. The damp climate destroyed many land use permits and documents from village elders. In addition, many land grab victims don’t even know who now owns their land as it has already been divided and sold on several times.

It is easy to draw attention to problems that need to be urgently addressed. However, at the centre of the land dispute problem are relations between foreign investors, the military, the ruling party, and the victims of these cruel thefts. The sustainability of the country’s internationally-praised, but fragile, transition may depend on how the new government can balance these concerns – for the benefit of everyone concerned.