Law: the bane of Burma’s landowners
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Law: the bane of Burma’s landowners

The issue of land rights hangs like a heavy cloud over Burma. More than 60 percent of the country is reliant on agriculture as a primary source of income, yet farmers are not allowed to own the land they work – instead, they effectively rent it from the government, meaning that lucrative arable fields can be (and regularly are) confiscated and transformed into building sites.

The denial of land rights is up there with the worst forms of human rights abuses in the country, but lacks the dramatic glint that draws international attention to the physical assaults on civilians by the Burmese government. It may be because of this that Naypyidaw is pushing ahead with a Land Act that does very little to prevent future theft of land, either due to weak enforcement, or because the Act itself is so flimsy.

Some important coverage of the issue came out this weekend that international lobbyists vying for entry to Burma should take particular note of. “While foreign governments heap praise on the Burmese government’s liberal tilt, land theft appears to be increasing as state agencies and powerfully placed domestic firms position themselves to welcome foreign investment,” wrote William Boot in The Irrawaddy.

He likens rule of law in Burma, even in the current ‘reform’ era, to 12th Century Europe: “In medieval Europe, land ownership was determined by sharp swords and private armies. In present-day Burma, powerful businesses linked to the army do much the same.”

That sentiment is echoed in a key 2009 text, ‘Housing, Land and Property Rights in Burma: The Current Legal Framework’, which states: “… successive military regimes have perpetuated an almost feudal governance system – where the population is seen as a resource at the disposal of the rulers – that is in many respects unchanged since pre-colonial times.”

The Land Act will help to consolidate the millions of acres of confiscated land across Burma in the hands of private business (i.e. those who tasked Burmese troops with stealing it). Civil society groups have vehemently attacked the bill, and small changes have been made, but its effect remains largely the same.

Take the current situation in Rangoon’s Mingalardon township for example, where an ownership dispute has resurfaced between farmers and construction giant, Zaykaba (ironically owned by MP, Khin Shwe). “In a dispute that dates back to early 2010, farmers in Shwenanthar village allege Zaykabar tricked them into giving up land tenure rights to about 800 acres that the company plans to use to build an industrial zone,” says the Myanmar Times.

Bulldozing of the farmland has recommenced as of last week, and soldiers are blocking the farmers from intervening. One local official told Myanmar Times that he had no power to stop the company. “Officials gave two official notices to Zaykabar to stop implementing Industrial Zone 4. But they didn’t obey them.”

The fracas demonstrates that current laws do little to protect small landowners. Indeed, as the Irrawaddy says, “Land confiscation is being reported near the south coast, in the Rangoon region, around Mandalay and in northern areas close to the border with China.”

The practice continues to be rife, but is still treated as a sideline issue in Burma. Why might this be so?

“The primary reason for this is that, first of all, people can do very little about it externally or internally, so there’s not a huge amount of legal procedures one can pursue,” Leckie told me in an interview several years ago.

“The second issue is that the vast majority of land is controlled by the state, which significantly undermines the possibility of achieving a great deal when one looks to pursue justice on land disputes. Thirdly, it’s almost so ubiquitous, the problem is so huge, that people are deterred and instead focus on areas that are simpler to deal with.”