Myanmar Military’s Land Grabs ‘Cast Doubt’ on Commitment to Reform

An Asian rights group has accused Myanmar’s military of grabbing land and hiding the seizures under a false veneer of legality, saying the actions cast doubt on the country’s commitment to political reform after decades under military rule.

Citing a slew of land disputes with displaced residents across the country over the past year, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said the Myanmar authorities have proven themselves “incapable” of acting in accordance with the law.

The Hong Kong-based group called for the seized land to be returned to its original owners, saying that in one case “the army has no documentation to show that it is entitled to occupy the contested area.”

The AHRC also accused civilian authorities of collaborating with members of the military to confiscate land, saying they used invalid orders and procedures to justify their actions.

Among the disputes cited were the decades-old military land grab in Migyaungkan village in the outskirts of Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon,  the expansion of the China-backed Letpadaung copper mine in Salingyi township in northern Myanmar, and a land conflict with police in Ma-Ubin and police land grab in Nattalin township—both in the country’s south.

The AHRC said the authorities have compounded the problem by imprisoning those protesting against the land grabs.

“Together, these events indicate that despite the extensive political changes taking place in Burma, many old habits are continuing under new guises,” the group said in a statement, using the previous official name for Myanmar.

“While the government increasingly insists that things be done according to law, the facts suggest otherwise,” it said, calling for justice for the residents fighting the land grabs.

Call to return land

AHRC lawyer Min Lwin Oo said none of the land involved in the recent disputes had been taken legally.

“Actually, there is no land that was confiscated according to law. They just did it to oppress farmers,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“Even if they do need to confiscate land from farmers, they must compensate farmers with proper land rates.”

AHRC, which works to promotes human rights in countries across Asia and has a legal arm that reports to the U.N., urges Myanmar’s government to protect the rights of residents fighting land grabs, he said.

“AHRC has called on the authorities to return the lands to their original owners as they confiscated those lands illegally. AHRC also urges … the release of those detained and sentenced … for protesting against authorities for their confiscated lands.” 

Ignoring opportunities

Military and civilian authorities have also ignored opportunities to work within the law to confiscate land, the group said. 

Existing legislation, including two laws passed in 2010 that authorize the military to oversee land in certain circumstances, offers the military “extensive” opportunity to protect its interests, it said.

But instead of applying them, authorities have chosen to work outside existing rules to enforce land grabs, using “procedures, regulation and injunctions issued to give a false impression of legality,” it said.

“Administrators and other officials are on the one hand working harder to give an impression that they have the legal authority to continue with the practices of the past,” it said.

“But on the other hand they are continuing to fail to come up to even the minimal domestic standards required of them.”

Farmers’ conference

Activists say Burma is facing a scourge of land seizures by the government, private companies, and the well-connected as the former pariah state opens up to global foreign investment following decades of military misrule.

Some of the disputes involve residents displaced from their homes, while many involve farmers kicked off their fields. 

At a farmers’ conference in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region on Tuesday, farmers said they need stronger protection against land grabs, as well as other support from the government for their work.

“We discussed farmer’s rights … such as the right to freely plant and trade crops they have planted, and the right to freely form farmer organizations,” said Thaung Tun, director of the Bangkok-based Institute for Peace and Social Justice in Burma.

“We also discussed getting support from the government for water resources, pesticides, and fertilizer, getting reasonable prices for crops, and the right to be protected against land grabbing,” he said after the conference.

The meeting was attended by some 3,000 farmers, civil society group representatives, farmers’ and workers’ union members, and politicians.