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Land battles surface in Myanmar as reforms unfold

By Erika Kinetz

Associated Press

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

For now, only a few buildings break Mingaladon's green fields. Boys fish in muddy ditches as workers lay the bricks of high new walls. But Myanmar's rising-star status with international investors has given Zaykabar's slow burning project new urgency.

The U.S and Europe have lifted most sanctions against Myanmar in response to reformist president Thein Sein's drive to transform the country from a vilified dictatorship to a free-market democracy. Political prisoners have been released and press censorship eased. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament, and the government is appealing to foreign investors for capital and expertise.

All that makes the land in Mingaladon more attractive to investors. Zaykabar, a subsidiary of the National Development Company Group, said after upgrading the industrial zone with electricity, water and roads, it has been selling the land for 20 million to 40 million kyat ($23,500 to $47,000) per acre. The highest prices it fetched are more than 130 times the payments that farmers got for an acre of land in 2010.

Zaykabar and its chairman, Khin Shwe, who is also a member of Parliament for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, are both still subject to individual U.S. sanctions for alleged links to the old military junta. U.S. citizens are barred from doing business with them.

Zaykabar has filed a defamation lawsuit against the self-appointed leader of the farmers, Nay Myo Wai, a round-faced 40-year-old who made his living as an engineer and kerosene smuggler before refashioning himself a politician. His right forearm bears a tattoo of a dragon, etched in ink laced with snake venom when he was a child in the belief it would render him immune to snake bites.

"Whether you sign or not, they will take the land," Nay Myo Wai said. "Farmers felt they couldn't say no."

Zay Thiha, who is Khin Shwe's son and serves as Zaykabar's vice chairman, said the company paid the Ministry of Construction's Department of Human Settlements and Housing Development 3.5 million kyat per acre for land acquired in 1997 and agreed to pay 4.4 million kyat per acre for land acquired in 2010.

An official at the Department of Human Settlements, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with the media, said the department had not yet taken any money for the 2010 land nor signed a contract for the acquisition.

"The company hasn't got the permission to transform farming land," he said.

The official confirmed that Zaykabar paid the government 3.5 million kyat per acre in 1997.

He declined to say whether the government had paid farmers for their land in 1997. Under the country's old land laws, farmers were entitled to little or no compensation for their land, all of which belonged to the government, he said.

Zay Thiha said the government has agreed in principle to the 2010 arrangement and that it is the department's responsibility — not the company's — to get final approval for using the farmland for the industrial zone.

He said his father Khin Shwe, wise to the shifting political winds in Myanmar, went out of this way to help the farmers in 2010, in the run-up to Myanmar's first parliamentary elections in 20 years.

"He was competing in the election so he didn't want to get a bad name," Zay Thiha said.

Khin Shwe met with around 60 farmers in May of 2010, which was six months before the election and Khin Shwe's first bid for public office, and agreed to give them money. Because Zaykabar cannot legally acquire land directly from the farmers, according to Zay Thiha, the company made a "donation" of 300,000 kyat per acre, according to Zay Thiha. He said some farmers were given an additional 300,000 kyat per acre for the rice crop in their fields.

"He didn't want to see farmers lose their land without getting any money, so that's why he gave these charity fees," said Zay Thiha. He said the compensation was above market rates at the time and provided ample capital to buy other farmland.

As evidence that no one was coerced he gave the example of 12 people who he said still haven't agreed to hand over around 100 acres. "We say please and are very gentle," he said.

Zay Thiha predicts, ambitiously, that the 2,500 acre industrial zone alone could create 1.5 million stable jobs in Southeast Asia's poorest country, but few farmers see a place for themselves or their children in that bright, industrial future.

Kyaw Sein, 62, is the son of farmers and his sons are farmers.

"We can't do anything except farm," he said. He said he agreed to accept 300,000 kyat per acre from Zaykabar in 2010 because he saw what happened to his neighbors in 1997.

"They lost their farms totally and didn't get anything," he said. "Anything is better than nothing."

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Additional reporting by Associated Press writer Yadana Htun in Yangon.

Follow Erika Kinetz on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ekinetz

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