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Burmese Investment Boom Fuels Worries Over Land Grabs

  • Ron Corben

Burmese farmers look at police from inside a monastery in protest against the seizing of farmland across 26 villages for a copper mine project in Sarlingyi Township, September 12, 2012.

Burmese farmers look at police from inside a monastery in protest against the seizing of farmland across 26 villages for a copper mine project in Sarlingyi Township, September 12, 2012.

The opening of Burma’s economy to foreign investors is leading to conflicts over land confiscation, as politically-connected businessmen seize agricultural lands for development projects. The problem has led to the government’s creation of a commission to deal with mounting complaints. A $50 billion special economic zone in southeastern Burma is the latest area of concern.

Seized land

In Burma, all land is nominally owned by the state, leaving small-scale farmers without legal land titles.

Over the years, businesses with connections to the country’s military government were able to seize land from farmers and villagers, mostly to build lucrative mining or agricultural projects. Many of those who lost their lands received little compensation.

Now, as the government considers new laws to attract foreign investors, activists say there has been a rash of land seizures with up to 3.6 million hectares being taken by government, private companies and the military as the economy prepares for more foreign investment.

“One of the things that we’re seeing coming up all over Burma is land problems - seizures of land - unauthorized taking of land - by well connected wealthy people. Burma is starting to see similarly in areas that previously were not considered to be very important," explained Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia director for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. "All of a sudden they are starting to look vulnerable and people with connections are displacing farmers and others.”

Burma’s Army, which has a long history of land seizures, is also accused of continuing to grab land in ethnic areas. Khin Ohmar is spokesperson for the rights group Burma Partnership, who says the moves are fueling suspicion about the army’s plans. “We’ve been getting reports of the army taking the large [amounts of] land in ethnic areas - building the army camps," he said. "So the question comes, why are they building the new army camps in the democratic climate; democratic transition?”

Villagers speak out

While activists say the problem is worsening, there are signs that the government is responding to the issue through the creation of the land commission under the Office of the President.

Kevin Woods, a researcher with Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, says the commission illustrates the new “political space” that allows protestors to file complaints -- in stark contrast with the past.

“It was never possible before for villagers to speak out about this or else they would disappear. And suddenly now it’s possible - not of course without intimidation from authority figures, but people are not disappearing from raising these issues and it’s having a kind of domino effect in terms of other villagers,” stated Woods.

Displacement risk, land confiscation

Of particular concern is the $50 billion, 250 square kilometer Dawei Special Economic Zone in southeastern Burma. The project, strategically located to link to Thai transport routes, has been a key initiative for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Transnational Institute in its latest report says the Thai-backed project is putting more than 30,000 people, 20 primary schools and numerous temples, at risk of being displaced.

The Dawei Development Corp says it has new accommodations for those displaced along with lump sum payments. But residents fear a loss of their livelihoods.

The Institute’s Woods says new land laws and foreign investment laws will leave small scale farmers vulnerable in government moves to set up a “land market” in Burma. “You have created a situation that could potentially eliminate the livelihoods of 70 per cent of the country’s population which are small holder farmers. When we talk about progressive laws, the country has literally put their land up for sale when the vast majority of people are directly reliant about that for their livelihood.”

But Asian Development Bank (ADB) economist Alfredo Perdiquero says while land confiscation is a concern there appears to be some progress in dealing with the issue.

“The situation will improve for several reasons. You can see already people are starting to become more aware of their rights. The media is more open. So when there is some land confiscation - which is very unfair - this comes up in the media. Even in the north you hear stories of Chinese investment which is already providing much more significant compensation for land per acre than used to be,” Perdiquero noted.

Analysts say the issue remains a key test of the Burmese government’s ability to entice foreign investment and create a government body to address the complaints of the country’s citizens.

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