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Myanmar Foreign Investment Zone Sparks Land Grab Outrage

Myanmar Foreign Investment Zone Sparks Land Grab Outrage
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As Myanmar’s real estate market booms, there are increasing complaints of land confiscation from people who say they are being illegally evicted from their property and cut out of huge profits. An industrial development zone just outside of the city has become a flashpoint.

Signs of development in Yangon affirm the government’s aim of opening the country to international business.

But around the Thilawa Special Economic zone, a joint Myanmar, also known as Burma, - Japan project for foreign manufacturers, there is controversy.

Thousands of locals say the military began illegally confiscating their land deeds more than 20 years ago, and now that it has become valuable they are being evicted.

Saw Min is among a group of villagers who say they had more than 320 hectares of farmland taken by the military.

Her family was forced to re-locate to a small hut opposite her property, which is now becoming a multi-million dollar condo complex. With nowhere else to go, she is trying all legal options to try to get compensated.

"They claimed that we didn't have a legal ownership of lands and they forced us to leave here by giving orders and warning notices," she explained. "I cannot move from here as I don't have an other place to move in. Now, we keep defending our lands by showing ownership documents and sending letter to U Shwe Mann [Chairman of Parliament]."

The story is the same with thousands of others.

President Thein Sein has pledged investigations into all land grab accusations, but many rights groups say the government efforts fall short. They are calling on foreign companies investing in developments in Myanmar to do a better job of determining the legal authority for land purchases.

In the meantime, the property laws are in flux, and the future remains uncertain for those like Tamya Tay who have been displaced by the building boom. "If I don't get a compensation, I don't know how to claim for it. I don't have a husband, I also don't understand much about laws and my legal rights. I hope that I will get a compensation when other neighbors get it," she stated.

Community leader Makon Suha, who says he lost nearly 20 hectares of land to the economic zone, is pushing to have a member of parliament take up their complaints with the Farmlands Investigation Committee.

But despite the president’s promises of compensation, locals say they are still pessimistic that they will be compensated for the land they farmed for decades.

"I don't understand about laws, land rights and leasehold rights, that's why, they are cheating on us as they wish. We, all Myanmar ordinary people, are suffering a lot. Only cronies of military junta are having good opportunities here," Makon Suha said.

With development and foreign investment rapidly advancing in Myanmar, the land grab cases are a test for whether the country’s economic policies are lifting many people’s incomes, or just a few.