Myanmar’s economy is largely reliant on agriculture, with over 70 percent of citizens working in that field, despite the fact that only 20 percent of its land is arable. Myanmar’s agricultural productivity declined during the long rule of military in government, and is now threatened by a host of factors, including climate change and land mismanagement. Additionally, due to the nature of Myanmar’s outdated and overlapping land policy laws, the military and its cronies have been able to confiscate land from individuals who have been working on them for centuries, leaving them with no livelihood.
More than 70 percent of the individuals who had their land taken from then have no access to any other land to work on. As a result, many displaced individuals are forced into dangerous and illegal livelihoods, and some have even been arrested for ‘trespassing’ on lands that were initially their own. Land ownership and classification is further complicated by the fact that most land is not formally registered to individuals or families. Additionally, in many areas, land ownership is complicated by history of conflict between the government and ethnic groups that led to many people being displaced.
These arbitrary land confiscations have come about because of Myanmar’s complex and often overlapping laws related to land usage and ownership, dating back to its British colonial period. The first law that established land usage policy was the 1894 colonial-era Land Acquisition Act. It dictates some policies including investigations, notifications and objections of land ownership, however they are rarely ever followed in practice.
The military has always had a significant role in the government of Myanmar. When the military formally ruled Myanmar from 1962-2011, a great amount of farmland was taken improperly from its owners. The military still maintains power through indirect control today. Although the 2008 constitution limited their authority as confined to a quarter of the seats in parliament, the role of commander-in-chief often overrides the president. In the past there was also instances of ‘reclassification’ of land that almost always abdicated fertile lands into the hands of the government or their associated corporations and cronies. According to the Parliamentary Land Investigation Committee, the military, the government, and private companies associated with them took an estimated 500,000 to one million acres of land for agricultural purposes. The committee estimated that “approximately 1.9 million acres were illegally transferred to private companies in the past 20 years, even though 70 percent on that land has never been developed and is still used for farming by the original owners.” Additionally, the land of Myanmar is incredibly mineral-dense, which incentivizes military-associated groups to confiscate land in search of profit.
One of the main issues relating to land policy in Myanmar is the contradicting nature of its laws. Laws made by different governments or different military regimes often didn’t clarify important concepts relating to land. Additionally, many of the same bodies in Myanmar perform some of the same functions, such as the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, and the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry. Additionally, over 20 agencies are indirectly responsible for land policy, both at the national and state level. There are also more than 30 laws that dictate land usage and policy, many of them dating back to the British colonial period. These confusing and contradictory policies and agencies have led to a system in which land is arbitrarily taken from individuals with no clear means to retake it. Oftentimes, individuals displaced from their lands are given little to no compensation for their losses.
Despite the fact that the 2008 Myanmar constitution guarantees “citizens right of property,” it also maintains that the “state shall supervise extraction and utilization of state-owned natural resources by economic forces” and that the “Union is the ultimate owner of all lands and all natural resources…” Many laws and constitutions have reaffirmed the state’s ownership over the land. The Burma Land and Revenue Act in 1876 states that “A landholder shall have permanent right of use and occupancy in his land, subject only to the reservation in favor of Government of all mines and mineral products.” The 1947 constitution stated that all lands belonged to the government, and an act passed by the government called the “Land Nationalization Act” allowed the state to use the land for whatever purposes it deemed necessary, including the forced allocation of land already inhabited by farmers. The Constitution of the Union of Burma in 1947 states that “the state is the ultimate owner of all lands.” These continual stipulations that the land is the property of the state have formed the basis for arbitrary confiscation by the military or other groups with strong associations to the government.
The elections of 2015 resulted in the new presidential administration led by U Thein Sein, who pledged to reform the land use policy laws, as well as promising to return land to individuals it had been taken from. They formed the Land Use Allocation and Scrutinizing Committee that consulted with the public on measures to reform land policy. The stated goal of the National Land Use Policy was “to develop and implement fair procedures relating to land acquisition, compensation, relocation, rehabilitation, restitution and reclaiming land tenure and housing rights of internal displaced persons and returning refugees caused by civil war, land confiscation, natural disasters and other causes.” The formation of the committee had been regarded as a step in the right direction, however there has been controversy regarding the policies and composition of the committee.
In 2011, Myanmar completed the transition from a formally military-ruled country, to a nominally civilian government. In practicality, the president Thein Sein had deep ties to the military and the winning Union Solidarity and Development Party was backed by the military.
Given Thein Sein’s deep relationship with the military, many were concerned about the future of Myanmar’s land policy laws. However, the government introduced several laws in order to reform the country’s land laws. Thein Sein even stated that he intended to “put farmers at the forefront of his economic reform.” In order to do so, he enacted three laws to reform Myanmar’s land policy, including the Farmland Law, the Vacant Fallow and Virgin Land Law and the Foreign Investment Law. His stated goals included means to increase native farmer’s tenure and security over their own lands, while also encouraging foreign investment.
The Farmland law was implemented in 2012, and allowed users to register land, thereby creating a system in which individuals have a legitimate claim to the land. The law allows farmers to grow crops, but only in accordance with the state’s laws, and farmers can take on mortgages to repay loans. This law was criticized because it still maintained state authority over all land, so there was no chance for residents to claim permanent ownership. Some argue that “current land laws are geared towards the interests of minority elites and the lack of land records has been exploited by state authorities so that income and property are systematically transferred from the rural poor to the urban elite.”
The Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law allows putting out notice for lands that are considered “vacant, fallow or virgin” in order provide an opportunity for individuals to petition the committee. The committee will analyze potential economic and environmental benefit, and allocate land portions to individuals and families. This was proposed in order to ensure that all land was being used to its greatest potential.
The Foreign Investment Law allows overseas firms to fully invest with little to no regulations, generous tax breaks and longer leases. The government argued that the relaxed regulations would incentivize foreign companies to invest in Myanmar, which would in turn stimulate profit among the local people.
Land Policy in Rural Areas
Rural communities in Myanmar have significant historical, cultural and economic ties to their land. It is customary for families to live on lands for generations, and teach their children their livelihood. Displacement of people living on rural land has created a whole host of cultural and economic upsets from the people who once resided on the land.
As stated previously, there are many departments within Myanmar that have overlapping functions, often creating confusion when it comes to problem resolution. Rural people have been extremely vulnerable to arbitrary land confiscation. Fertile and mineral rich lands targeted by the military and associated groups are often held by rural communities. Antiquated and contradictory laws have made it easy for groups to claim ownership over the land and evict the communities that had been living there for generations. Despite official recognition of the practice, little has been done to remedy the problem. Compensations are often small, and usually only consist of a one-time cash compensation, which does not present a long term solution to problem. Additionally, few long-term jobs have been given as compensation.
The Farmland Law, implemented in 2012, was widely regarded as one of the first attempts to legally protect individuals living and working off of rural farmland. It requires farmers and individuals dwelling on rural lands to apply and keep a permit of their right to live on the land. Supports argue this is the first step towards creating land security for individuals it has often been denied to in the past.
Additionally, the scale of urban growth in Myanmar has incentivized many people to leave the rural communities and go to larger cities, often Yangon, in pursuit of jobs. This has placed an increase strain on individuals living in rural communities, as they struggle to fill the demand of the urban cities with a diminished labor pool.
Land Policy in Urban Areas
Yangon is an urban hub that attracts workers from Myanmar’s rural areas with the promise of jobs. The city faces a rapidly expanding population coupled with a housing shortage that forces many low-income workers to find other areas to live. The Department of Urban Housing and Development estimates that Yangon has “more than half a million squatters living in 110,000 households, mostly on the cities’ outskirts.
Additionally, the infrastructure of Yangon is an inadequate environment for its rapidly growing population. The sewage system is underdeveloped and many areas lack reliable access to necessities like clean water and electricity. Because of the pressing need to industrialize Yangon and minimize the burden of squatters, many of them have been forcibly removed by the government. In 2017, approximately 4,000 squatters were removed from an abandoned building in order to make way for construction of a high-rise residential complex, that none of the squatters would be able to afford. The government has recently announced plans to remove squatters in Yangon, starting with those located in Yangon’s industrial districts in order to upgrade the infrastructure so that Yangon can be more competitive in the field of “regional electricity, industry, transport and communications” said Daw Nilar Kyaw who is the current minister of industry. Squatters often create issues for infrastructure especially for clearing trash and setting up drainage and sewage systems.
As a solution, the government has been conducting research into squatter populations, and have been providing them with identifying documents. According to a government survey in September 2017, there are over 100,000 squatters in the region of Yangon The government has promised to make the squatter situation in Yangon a priority by constructing more low-income housing. In particular, there was recently a program that provided low-cost housing to squatters through a lottery program. Their plan is to industrialize cities just outside of Yangon, so squatters have access to jobs in Yangon, while being able to afford housing.
The Farmland Law was initially welcomed as a positive change, because it allowed individuals to register their land, thereby ensuring individual land use rights. However, many claim that the registration process has had many difficulties. Many farmers lack information about how to register successfully. Additionally, farmers have to register under a head household name, which is usually under the domain of men. Female farmers have tenuous control and greater difficulty registering their name to land.
People have argued that the committees created by the government have been ineffective. The committee’s’ powers are limited to investigation, and it can’t make policy decisions. The Frontier Myanmar argued that “The new NLD-led national parliament should move quickly to draft and adopt a new law governing tenure and land use in line with international human rights standards, to ensure that increasing economic investment and development do not lead to more land grabs and forced evictions.”
Additionally, Thein Sein’s reforms have been criticized for not strictly monitoring foreign investment and businesses. The laws allow foreign investors generous tax breaks, and long leases on land, up to 50 years depending on the type of investment. Furthermore, one of the changes made was that foreigners could own the entire company without any need for a local partner, as with the previous law that had been enacted. Despite the initial goals of the government, Thein Sein was widely criticized for implementing land policy reforms that heavily favored large business owners and did not take into account the opinion of farmers and rural are dwellers enough.
A report conducted on land acquisition in Myanmar found that “Large tracts of land were compulsorily acquired and conceded during the past several decades of military rule that spanned 1962-2011” and that even since the new government took power in 2011 arbitrary land displacement has still occurred and is likely to occur in the future. It is extremely promising that governments that formed after the military junta were committed to finding solutions to the land policy problem in Myanmar. While the committees are a positive step towards including the voices of ordinary citizens and the disadvantaged in the policies of Myanmar, there needs to be work done to ensure that there is genuine representation, and that the bodies function effectively.
Myanmar’s economy is rapidly developing, and Yangon lures many workers from rural Myanmar seeking better jobs. The Myanmar government should invest in the housing and infrastructure in Yangon. This will spur economic growth in the long-run.
Additionally, in order to develop effective land usage policies in the future, there should be increased consultations with the individuals that the policies will affect, especially people in rural areas. Policies should be aimed at creating long-term food and job security, as well as appropriate compensation for past losses. . There should also be studies conducted to understand land tenure issues and identify areas in which action should be prioritized. Also, Myanmar should complete the transition to ensure that agencies have defined scope and authority, so the issue of overlapping departments is resolved. Additionally, there should be better oversight and transparency practice to ensure that individuals are not wrongly removed from their lands. The government could also help facilitate the existence of local resolution mechanisms, so that individuals can resolve problems at a lower level, without having to resort to the bureaucracy of national departments. There should also be some form of standardization mechanism, to ensure that land leases are honored.
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