The Asian Legal Resource Center, a non-governmental organization with consultative status to the United Nations, is calling for swift action in Burma to prevent a land-grabbing epidemic.
In a written statement during its September 2011 session, ALRC alerted the UN Human Rights Council to the dangers posed to the rights of people in Burma by the convergence of military, business and administrative interests in new projects aimed at displacing cultivators and residents from their farms and homes.
At that time, the Center wrote that whereas seizure of land has long been practiced in Burma, in recent years its dynamics have changed, from direct seizure by army units and government departments, to seizure by army-owned companies, joint ventures and other economically and politically powerful operations with connections to the military.
Land grabs are occurring all over the country. People are being forced out of their houses or losing agricultural land to state-backed projects, sometimes being offered paltry compensation, sometimes nothing. Some cases on which the ALRC has recently collected information include the handing over of agricultural land cultivated by people in New Dagon to government officials; the forcing out of 212 households from an area in Chaungthar, a tourist town on the western coastline of the delta, for planned township redevelopment; and, the theft of the smallholdings of an entire village in Bago Region, already been decimated by the construction of a dam nearby in 1999, so that a company can plant teak.
People who refuse to move when forced out by land grabbers risk prosecution and jail. In one case, the Naypyidaw municipal council prosecuted 21 householders for refusing to vacate their village when ordered in 2011: in March 2012 a court sentenced six of the group to three months in jail each, and in April it sentenced another three to jail terms; the others demolished their houses and left after the court gave its first sentences, out of legitimate fear that they also would also go to jail.
ALRC says that two fundamental reasons exist for the increase in land grabbing in Burma. First, as political, economic and social conditions change rapidly, the country is touted as the last emerging “land of opportunity” for global business with interests in Southeast Asia. Serving and former military officers who are still in government are together with their business partners lining up to do deals that will make them rich. Military-owned or connected companies and businessmen–which dominate the country’s economy–are hurrying to force ordinary citizens off real estate that they can use to attract foreign investors.
Second, as land grabbing accelerates, the legal framework has not only failed to keep pace but has gone backwards. Its institutions are neither inclined to intervene, nor are capable of intervening to protect the rights of farmers, householders and others facing the encroachment of military-owned companies and their partners.
In short, far from reducing the prospects of land grabbing, the new Farmland Law opens the door to confiscation of agricultural land on any pretext associated with a state project or the “national interest”. Far from guaranteeing the rights of farmland users to cultivate and sell their products for fair prices, it guarantees only that whatever state agencies want, they can get. It also precludes any role for the already weak and ineffectual judiciary, ensuring that administrators and government ministers have final say on all matters of importance concerning the occupation and usage of agricultural land: as indeed they did in the 1970s and 1980s under a one-party regime.
The law came into effect without any evidence of public consultation or debate, much as laws have come into effect in Burma over the last few decades.The ALRC is aware that over 3300 farmers in Magway Region had, by December 2011, signed a petition opposing the law in its draft form and calling instead for a draft that would protect their rights to cultivate agricultural land and gardens; their rights to cultivate crops as they saw fit; and to stop unlawful land grabbing.
A number of other countries in Southeast Asia have already experienced land grabbing on a massive scale, due to legal and institutional weaknesses and continued authoritarian practices analogous to those found in Burma, combined with a large-scale and rapid influx of foreign capital tied to local joint ventures.
ALRC says that swift intervention could prevent the country from going down the path of Cambodia, where land grabbing is so rife and the political and economic systems so heavily bound up in the state-sponsored theft of land that it is too late for the international community to do anything effective to stop it.
They also argue that the Burmese government is currently more open to international criticism and advice than at any other time in recent years. The Human Rights Council and its Special Procedures are well placed to make strong interventions to the government to urge it to review the Farmland Law, and to call for reforms to make the judiciary a working institution again.