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In Race to Develop Myanmar, Government Grabs Farmland for Factories

July 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Myanmar's government has entered into a major development agreement with a consortium of Japanese companies to build tech, food and textile factories. For many, this means more jobs, trade and revenue. But to make room, some farmers are being evicted and losing their livelihood. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports.

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next, we take you to the Asian nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma, where some farmers are paying a heavy price for the country’s emerging economy.

Special correspondent Kira Kay reports.

KIRA KAY: The first drops of the rainy season have fallen on Mya Hlaing’s rice paddies, and it is time to plow and sow. The rice will be ready for harvest in November. Mya Hlaing’s land and the village that abuts it were settled by his forefathers while Myanmar was still a British colony.

MYA HLAING, farmer (through translator): I have been living in this village since I was born. Even my great-grandfather lived here. When I die, I wish to die in this village.

KIRA KAY: But, on Jan. 31, Mya came home to find an eviction notice nailed to his wall. The Myanmar government had entered into a major development agreement with a consortium of Japanese companies, like Mitsubishi, that will include high-tech, food and textile factories.

For impoverished Myanmar, this means lots of jobs and a surge of trade and revenue. But for Mya Hlaing and his neighbors, it meant they would have to move out in two weeks, or face jail.

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MYA HLAING (through translator): This meant the destruction of our lives. We were ordered to move out, but we were not offered any other housing or compensation for our loss.

KIRA KAY: Like most of Myanmar’s farmers, Mya Hlaing never held an ownership deed to his inherited fields, and for decades this wasn’t a problem as the government allowed farmers broad rights to cultivate and live on the land. But in the late 1980s, that all changed, as a repressive dictatorship took power and started seizing land for military use and to hand out to the elites.

MAUNG MAUNG WIN, Win and Partners (through translator): Powerful government leaders, their children and relatives, together with their business cronies, lawlessly confiscated a great deal of agricultural land for their own interests.

KIRA KAY: Maung Maung Win is a lawyer based in Yangon.

MAUNG MAUNG WIN (through translator): Farmers who demanded their land back were jailed. There was hardly any compensation. If an offer was made, it was a meager amount. These confiscations created great difficulties for the farmers’ lives.

KIRA KAY: In Mya Hlaing’s case, it was the housing authority that seized the land in 1996, but never did anything with it. Officials let him stay, and even farm, as long as he also paid taxes.

But now foreign investors are coming to Myanmar and, all of a sudden, Mya Hlaing’s land has become very valuable to the government that took it many years ago.

In the last year, as a reformist government has ushered in more democratic practices, economic sanctions have been dropped by countries that had for decades boycotted Myanmar, including the United States.

Already, the first signs of change are apparent. Celebrity-filled showroom openings light up the Yangon night. There’s a hum of construction as new hotels and office towers rise. Modern shopping malls are making the lives of Burmese more comfortable.

PHIL ROBERTSON, Human Rights Watch: It is a get-rich moment, and the land tenure of poor people in Burma is the victim.

KIRA KAY: Phil Robertson is with Human Rights Watch.

PHIL ROBERTSON: What you have seen is a deprivation over the past 40 years in Burma, where people have not been able to invest, make — do business and things like that, because it’s been controlled by the state, controlled by the army.

Now people with connections are recognizing that this is the window, my three to five years, when I can make my family secure. It’s a race to control things.

It’s a race to control assets. It’s a swamp that international investors are going to be wandering into as they look to invest in Burma in the future.

KIRA KAY: Lawyer Maung Maung Win says that with some 70 percent of the population relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, the risk of insecurity from unresolved land issues is high.

MAUNG MAUNG WIN (through translator): Solving the land situation is the most important issue in Myanmar, but the current government cannot as yet handle it. These standoffs are happening everywhere around the country, and if we do not prioritize this issue, we are going to run into a lot more problems.

KIRA KAY: Some of these land disputes have turned violent. In February, dozens of people were hurt and an officer was killed when police used rubber bullets to disburse protesting crowds.

 

And near a Chinese-backed copper mine in central Myanmar, security forces have repeatedly clashed with villagers. In November, they burned protesting monks with phosphorus munitions. An investigative panel was assembled with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm.

But when she delivered the news that the project would continue, with compensation, the normally beloved democracy icon was berated, a vivid demonstration of how critical these standoffs are becoming.

But emboldened activists are also now seizing the moment of some new freedoms of speech and assembly to reassert farmers rights.

MAN (through translator): During the military regime these lands were taken.

KIRA KAY: Nay Myo Wai (ph) is working with farmers to measure every foot of their fields, establishing the exact boundaries with a GPS.

The fields sit near Yangon International Airport, and were given to a local company that is still on the U.S. sanctions lists. The company has said it paid the government $50 million, but farmers say they saw little or nothing of that money.

Now the company is laying in roads and walling off parcels, reportedly selling them to investors for up to $47,000 an acre.

Last year, Nay Myo Wai got a government permit to lead the farmers in what became the first legal protest in the country in more than 20 years. Now they are taking the GPS data and filing petitions with local authorities. And they have some hope. As part of the reforms process last year, Myanmar’s parliament passed new land laws.

Although the state remains the official owner of all land in Myanmar, farmers may be granted formal recognition of their rights to occupy, mortgage, inherit, and sell their fields, and receive fair compensation for acres taken for legitimate government use. The farmers say the stakes are high.

MAN (through translator): Now we can’t work on our land, so we have to go somewhere else as day laborers. We have to be ditch diggers, construction workers, carpenters.

But because we are not experienced, we are exploited by the employers. Now our families are broken. We are going around in circles.

 

KIRA KAY: It would have been unthinkable two years ago that protesting farmers could meet a foreign television crew. And they didn’t seem bothered by the plainclothes police officers filming our conversation.

MAN (through translator): This could be a turning point. And it’s about time. Honestly, we shouldn’t have to protest. It should be taken care of by writing a letter. Protesting is not fun, and we don’t want to do it. We just want authorities to resolve this issue.

KIRA KAY: Lawyer Maung Maung Win and his staff are also helping farmers navigate the complexities of the new land law, holding a walk-in clinic that is drawing farmers from around the country.

MAUNG MAUNG WIN (through translator): When they took over your land, did any negotiation take place?

KIRA KAY: These farmers fields were seized for a naval base that never materialized. They had been allowed to keep farming and have tax documents to prove their many years of occupancy.

But in recent months, the military started renting out the land for local factories and the farmers were told to stop planting. Some of their huts were bulldozed. The lawyers and farmers decide to contest the original land seizure with a newly established parliamentary commission. But Maung Maung Win admits he faces an uphill battle.

MAUNG MAUNG WIN (through translator): There’s no real rule of law and corruption remains within the courts and administration. We have sometimes been intimidated because of our activities.

We do now enjoy some freedom of expression because of the new constitution and our newspapers are no longer censored. But all these developments are mostly taking place on the surface of society, and injustices continue to take place.

KIRA KAY: Back in the rice fields outside Yangon, farmer Mya Hlaing has organized his neighbors. They put up signs in defiance of the eviction notice, stating they were rightful occupants who pay taxes. And Mya Hlaing began studying Myanmar’s land laws.

MYA HLAING (through translator): I think this project is important and will bring in benefits for our country. But we never had a voice. If there is exploitation, we have to fight against it.

KIRA KAY: Just a few weeks ago, with Japanese investors making their impatience clear, Myanmar government officials announced they will survey the area to set a compensation package using — quote — “international standards.”

Mya Hlaing says he will leave if the deal is fair, but he continues to till his rice paddies, hoping to squeeze in one more harvest before he leaves his ancestral home for good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kira’s story is part of our partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.