Land Reform Key to Burma’s Future

Tony Gosling tony at
Tue Oct 30 00:42:56 GMT 2012

When I was four, I first saw my father, a 
democracy activist, through prison bars during 
the first of two long incarcerations. When I was 
growing up I always wondered why my father could 
not be with us. I am 23 years old now but I had 
only 9 years of being together with my father. 
Whilst he is one of the lucky ones who has been 
released this year, many hundreds still remain in 
prison and others are sick after years of torture 
and abuse. As a daughter of a former political 
prisoner, I know how it feels to be separated 
from a family and I know how much they suffer even after their releases.

Land Reform Key to Burma’s Future
August 25, 2012 - by Kyaw Kyaw

The much heralded progress on political and 
social rights could all be in vain if amendments 
are not made to the country's property laws.

Last month, about 200 farmers from three 
townships in rural Yangon did something that was 
until very recently impossible in Burma: they 
staged a legal protest, demanding that their 
land, confiscated by private firms and state bodies, be returned to them.

Wearing bamboo hats and the traditional Burma 
longyi, the farmers, mostly in their late 40s and 
50s, were escorted by police as they marched 
along main roads on the city’s outskirts, 
carrying signs made from cardboard and paper with 
messages such as “Farmers have to work the 
fields, but other people get the benefits” and 
“Will you solve the dispute according to the law?” hastily scrawled in marker.

The July 14 protest was the first to test the 
limits of the new Peaceful Protest Law, which 
requires protesters to seek permission from 
police and local officials at least five days 
before the planned date. With the help of a local 
politician, the farmers negotiated the 
bureaucratic procedures and got the okay for the 
march, which ended peacefully at 11 a.m., after about two hours.

“We reported these cases to the government many 
times but the responses were not substantial 
enough for the farmers. So I hope every member of 
the public knows about the farmers and also hope 
that the president notices them,” U Nay Myo Wai, 
chairman of the Peace and Diversity Party, told local media.

Demonstrations over land ownership, such as the 
one on July 14, have become increasingly common 
in Yangon and other parts of Burma over the past year.

Many of the land disputes are not new, dating 
back to the last time the country attempted to 
“open up” to investors in the early 1990s. Over 
the past 20 years, some 1.9 million acres have 
ended up in the hands of private Burmese firms 
through a variety of means, most of which had 
some pretext of legality. More than 70 percent of 
these private holdings have never been developed, 
however, and often the original owners were 
allowed to continue farming on an annual basis. 
But anticipating a flood of foreign investment, 
private firms are beginning to reassert ownership 
over these increasingly valuable plots and 
beginning development projects, as well as 
seeking new concessions. The government has also 
started touting the agriculture sector to 
potential foreign investors; the 2nd Commercial 
Farm Asia expo – tagline: “Making Inroads into 
Asia's Awakened Tiger for Sustainable Agri 
Investments!” – will be held in Yangon in October.

Together with a relaxation on protests and media 
censorship, as well as the introduction of two 
important new land laws earlier this year, this 
has resulted in land ownership rights and land 
confiscation re-emerging as national issues – and 
one that experts like Nobel Prize-winning 
economist Joseph Stiglitz warn could derail 
government efforts to reduce poverty if mismanaged.

About two-thirds of the country’s population 
relies directly and indirectly on the agriculture 
sector, yet government figures show it comprises 
only 36.43 percent of gross domestic product. 
According to a joint UN-government survey 
conducted in 2009-10, 26 percent of the 
population remains below a poverty line set at a 
meagre 754 kyats a day – about 85 U.S. cents – 
and poverty is most acute among landless rural households.

Much of the land handed to private firms has been 
designated by the Ministry of Agriculture and 
Irrigation as fallow, vacant, or virgin land, 
with no registered owners. While it is often 
occupied and being cultivated, the government has 
typically characterized those working this land 
as “squatters.” In a nationally televised speech 
on economic reform on June 19, President U Thein 
Sein said the country was facing “difficulties in 
land management as squatters on forest land, 
virgin and fallow land and others are acting as 
if they originally own the plot they illegally occupied.”

“The result is widespread problems and because of 
these problems we are not in a position to allot 
a large number of hectares of land for 
investments as other countries do,” he said.

His comments have caused disquiet among the 
leaders of civil society and non-government 
organizations working on land issues.

“I’m not really sure if the president is really 
intensively aware about land issues,” said U Shwe 
Thein, chairman of the Land Core Group, a network 
of more than 30 international and local 
organizations focusing on land issues. “To me, 
this [statement] is not encouraging for the 
farmers. This is very alarming and as civil 
society networks we need to do more to update the 
president’s understanding on these issues and how 
farmers are vulnerable in terms of land tenure security.”

While new laws allowing unions and legalizing 
protests have garnered most of the headlines, 
recent changes to how land is administered will 
be equally significant in the years to come. In 
August of last year, the former Minister for 
Agriculture and Irrigation and now general 
secretary of the military-backed Union Solidarity 
and Development Party (USDP), U Htay Oo, 
submitted a new Farmland Law to parliament. This 
was quickly followed by the Vacant, Fallow and 
Virgin Lands Management Law, and amended versions 
of both laws were approved during the third 
session in early 2012. They represent the most 
substantial change to the legal framework for 
land since the early 1960s when everything was nationalized.

The new laws officially reintroduce the concept 
of private ownership, which means land tenure 
rights – all land remains the property of the 
state and can be nationalized by the government 
if necessary – can be sold, traded, or mortgaged. 
In one sense this is a positive step, as land was 
already being traded illegally but openly on a 
black market with little transparency. But the 
new laws also remove some protections for 
farmers; for example, allowing land to be repossessed if they fall into debt.

Activist U Win Myo Thu of the Burma 
non-government organization EcoDev warned 
recently that many farmers could also potentially 
lose their land under the two laws because they 
lacked proper ownership documents, citing a 
survey his organization conducted in 2010 of 1040 
farmers in three states that found almost 
three-quarters had only a land tax receipt as proof of ownership.

“Without considering the land security of these 
farmers, [we can] forget about the 
people-centered development that the president is 
highlighting all the time,” he said.

Different organizations, networks, and 
institutions have responded in various ways to 
the challenge of improving land tenure security 
in Burma. When the laws were submitted to 
parliament, civil society organizations and 
non-government organizations – which were 
excluded from the drafting process – lobbied 
individual politicians to have their many 
concerns addressed, with some success. Following 
on from this, the Land Core Group recently 
launched an activity plan that runs until 2014 
and has already attracted significant donor interest.

At the other end of the spectrum, UN-HABITAT is 
working directly with the under-resourced 
Settlement and Land Records Department on a 
two-year program that aims, among other things, 
to modernize ownership records and cadastral 
maps, most of which are still only on paper.

“I think both approaches are equally important to 
achieving the same objective, which is to help 
the government implement land laws in Burma that 
are inclusive of the smallholder farmer majority. 
That’s a shared objective but with different role 
and different approaches,” said Eben Forbes, 
program officer at the UN-HABITAT office in Yangon.

He said the passage of the laws through 
parliament had prompted a “huge spike in 
interest” about land issues among politicians, 
non-government organizations and aid donors.

“When the laws were being debated everyone was 
focused on them and we all got kind of fixated on 
the text of these laws for a while. But now 
they’ve been passed so it doesn’t do us much good 
to debate the nitty-gritty of the laws – it’s 
time to move on to the next step, which is the implementation,” he said.

“As Burma opens up into this new phase, [land is] 
seen as a critical area with a lot of potential 
in both directions; there’s the potential for 
sustainable development or there’s the potential 
for it to go in a really bad direction.”

Support for the farmers’ cause has also come from 
some unlikely sources, particularly in 
parliament. U Aung Thein Linn, a former brigadier 
general, mayor of Yangon and senior figure in the 
USDP, said recently following a study trip to 
central Burma that the new laws should be amended 
to strengthen the ownership rights of small-scale farmers.

While most observers would question the motives 
of the former military man – land is likely to be 
a major political issue in rural areas when his 
party comes up against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s 
National League for Democracy in the 2015 
election – the USDP-dominated national parliament 
recently overruled the government and voted to 
form a committee to investigate land disputes 
across the country, after a record number of MPs had discussed the proposal.

Lawyers and politicians outside the parliament – 
some of whom contested but lost seats in the 
November 2010 election – have also taken an 
active role, helping farmers understand the law 
and how it can be used to their advantage against 
businesses and government departments.

Mostly free of the muzzle of government 
censorship, numerous columns in each issue of the 
country’s increasingly vibrant private newspapers 
are given over to documenting land grabs, while 
farmers themselves have even started to use new 
laws to organize and form associations.

This coalition of forces appears to be making 
some ground. Last week, the prominent Weekly 
Eleven newspaper reported that a major 
agribusiness firm had handed back a concession of 
some 40,000 acres to farmers in the fertile 
Ayeyarwady delta, and said more firms were 
considering doing the same, ostensibly because 
they were financially viable. In June, the 
military agreed to pay compensation to the owners 
of more than 500 acres of land in northern Shan 
State that it confiscated in 2009 after lobbying 
from the local Member of Parliament.

But most agree that the private sector will play 
a significant role in Burma’s agriculture sector, 
which remains dominated by small-scale farmers 
who have little access to the formal credit they 
need to buy inputs and expand production. One of 
the Land Core Group’s first activities was to 
organize a conference with members of the 
nation’s largest business organization, the Union 
of Burma Federation of Chambers of Commerce and 
Industry, on contract farming and associated 
corporate social responsibility issues. On August 
9, it also hosted a workshop focusing on “how to 
engage with the private sector to benefit 
smallholder farmers” that was organized in 
“response to opportunities and threats of rapidly 
growing agribusiness interest in Burma, which is 
set to escalate as the country undergoes economic 
reform and prepares for a surge in FDI in the 
agricultural sector,” according to the group.

Another major development in Burma’s agriculture 
sector in recent years has been the formation of 
more than 50 “rice specialist companies” that 
provide cheap credit and inputs to farmers in one 
or two specific townships. While it has not been 
without its problems – farmers struggle to 
understand contracts, and the companies buy back 
paddy at the time of the year when it is cheapest 
– contract farming along these lines could 
provide a means of protecting land tenure rights 
while facilitating the private sector involvement 
that the government is keen to encourage.

“There are a lot of private sector pressures on 
the country [from] investors that want to get 
into the act so contract farming could be a way 
of satisfying all parties [and] avoiding a kind 
of ‘land grabbing model’ that you hear about 
happening in developing countries,” Eben Forbes 
said. “But it needs to be studied, particularly 
how it has played out in other countries around 
the region. I know it’s been abused but it 
depends on the contract: it can be a really 
win-win situation where farmers get better access to markets.”

The author is a Burma-based writer. His real name 
has been withheld at his request.

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