Land battles surface in Myanmar as reforms unfold

By Erika Kinetz

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 2:55 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken on Sept. 15, 2012, Myanmar landless farmers gather outside the home of Nay Myo Wai, an activist and politician who is leading the farmers in their fight against the Zaykabar Company to sign and thumbprint petitions asking the company for more money, in Yangon, Myanmar. The landscape of Mingaladon township, northern outskirts of Yangon, tells a story of economic upheaval. Skeletons of factories for a new industrial zone rise from thick green rice paddies local farmers say were seized illegally by the Zaykabar Company, one of Myanmar’s most powerful companies. Human rights groups say land battles could intensify because companies tied to the military and business elite are rushing to grab land as the country emerges from five decades of isolation and opens its economy.

Khin Maung Win, Associated Press

MINGALADON, Myanmar — The landscape of Mingaladon township on the northern outskirts Myanmar's main city tells a story of economic upheaval. Skeletons of factories for a new industrial zone rise from thick green rice paddies local farmers say were seized by one of Myanmar's most powerful companies.

The fight over land in Mingaladon is one of many such battles in Myanmar. Human rights groups say land battles are intensifying because companies tied to the military and business elite are rushing to grab land as the country emerges from five decades of isolation and opens its economy. Not only that. The political change sweeping through Myanmar means farmers and others are challenging land confiscations in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

One Sunday in July, some 200 farmers took to the streets of Yangon, the main city, to protest the Mingaladon land acquisition by the Zaykabar Company. It was the first legal protest to be held in Myanmar since a 1988 uprising against military rule was crushed and came just days after a new law allowing peaceful demonstrations was passed by parliament. In the past, protesters have been arrested or shot.

Two months after the July protest, dozens of farmers crowded into the shabby two story home of a protest leader to sign and thumbprint petitions asking Zaykabar for more money.

"The farmers know their rights and dare to demand their rights," said Htet Htet Oo Wai, a former political prisoner who has joined the fight over Mingaladon. "They didn't dare do that kind of thing two years ago," she said.

One of those farmers, Myint Thein, 56, pointed to a metal shed going up on the 15 acres his family used to tend. He said he got no money for the land back in 1997 when the Zaykabar Company began work on a 5,000 acre township, with a large industrial zone, office towers, a mall, some 4,000 residential bungalows and a 21-hole golf course.

Farmers such as Myint Thein couldn't fight back then. They weren't only ranged against Zaykabar. The company had the backing of the state and was developing the area through a joint venture with the government. Zaykabar paid the government around 14 billion kyat for the land — about $50 million then — and farmers say they saw none of it.

"At the time, you couldn't say anything," Myint Thein said. "We'd been farming for our whole life," he said. "It was like our hands were broken."

Before Myanmar's political reforms began, its military junta exercised unfettered power and in the state dominated economy the ruling generals had the last word on who owned what. The new government still owns all farmland and while it has made efforts to clarify land use rights it might also have reinforced avenues for small landholders to be dispossessed by the well-connected and powerful.

Myanmar passed two new land laws this year, which have been sharply criticized by human rights groups for the broad power they grant the government to requisition land in the national interest. The Asian Human Rights Commission told the United Nations that Myanmar was at risk of a "land-grabbing epidemic" if the laws aren't changed.

Zaykabar got more land for its Mingaladon project in 2010 from farmers who said the acquisition was illegal because the government hadn't authorized it and that they were coerced into accepting too little money for their fields. The company said the allegations aren't true. A Ministry of Construction official backed part of the farmers' account, saying a contract to develop the area has yet to be signed, but the government has given no indication it intends to intervene.

Some 86 farmers who handed over their land in 2010 have joined forces with over 150 of those who say they lost their land in 1997 to fight Zaykabar, in street marches and the media, through petitions to a new land dispute committee, and in court, if necessary.

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