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8 Mar, 2013

Landgrabs Sending Many Myanmar Villagers From the Frying Pan Into the Fire, Reports Show

Bangkok – As investors rush into Myanmar, human rights and ethnic groups are stepping up warnings that rampant landgrabs, social injustice and a rule-of-law vacuum are pushing the country from the frying pan into the fire. Whereas in the past, only military dictators were the problem, they have been joined by business conglomerates and local warlords in a “culture of coercion and impunity” that has simply replaced one set of problems with another.

Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil was the only travel industry journalist to cover this press conference at the FCCT in Bangkok. Click here for more info.

Says a report issued by the Karen Human Rights Group, “Villagers (have) described land confiscation and forced displacement occurring without consultation, compensation, or, often, notification. Displacements have taken place most frequently around natural resource extraction, industry and development projects. These include hydropower dam construction, infrastructure development, logging, mining and plantation agriculture projects, which are undertaken or facilitated by various civil and military State authorities, foreign and domestic companies and armed ethnic groups.”

The situation is being worsened by an absence of recourse. The supposed champion of the Burmese downtrodden, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has gone virtually silent. Human rights activists who backed her struggle against the military dictatorship are now backing her silence, saying they refuse to condemn her because she is caught in a “sensitive position.”

On March 5, 2013, a number of activists representing the Karen ethnic group held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to release three reports detailing their views and findings. They were accompanied by Debbie Stothard, deputy secretary general of International Federation for Human Rights (www.fidh.org). Providing other kinds of background support were a number of western human rights groups, some based in Chiang Mai, North Thailand. The three reports issued at the press conference can be downloaded in full here:

Download Losing Ground as a PDF [Adobe Acrobat PDF 2.35 mb]
Download Appendix 1: Raw Data Testimony as a PDF [Adobe Acrobat PDF 6.18 mb]
Download report briefer in English [Adobe Acrobat PDF [0.98 MB]


The main report draws on villagers’ interviews and testimony, as well as photographs, film and audio recordings collected by community members who it says “have been trained by KHRG to report on the local human rights situation.” Findings are based upon field information received between January 2011 and November 2012 across seven research areas, encompassing all or part of Kayin and Mon States and Bago and Tanintharyi Regions. Of 809 documents analysed for the report, 99 raised concerns or dealt with issues related to natural resource extraction and development projects in eastern Myanmar, the report says.

It adds, “Reports of business and development projects in eastern Myanmar have increased substantially in the wake of Myanmar government reforms and the ceasefire signed with the Karen National Union (KNU) in January 2012. While the cessation of armed conflict has made the area more accessible to investment and commercial interests, eastern Myanmar remains a highly militarized environment. In this context, where abundant resources provide lucrative opportunities for many, and a culture of coercion and impunity is entrenched after decades of war, villagers understand that demand for land carries an implicit threat. Villagers consistently report that their perspectives are excluded from the planning and implementation of these projects, which often provide little or no benefit to the local community or result in substantial, often irreversible, harm.”

It adds, “Displacement and barriers to land access arising from these projects present major challenges at the local level. Where land is forcibly taken, or otherwise made inaccessible, the obstacles to effective local-level response are often insurmountable. Even where villagers manage to overcome barriers to organizing a response, current legislation does not provide any easily accessible mechanism to allow their complaints to be heard.”

One of the Karen representatives, Ms Khu Khu Ju, said that there is no legal accountability nor rule of law. The conflict has faded but the legal and other infrastructure systems do not exist. Local warlords and business groups are colluding with military groups to access areas under their control. In some cases, military actors provide security for business projects or have a hand in confiscating villagers lands. The end result is more human rights abuses, including forced labour, extortion or physical security threats.

According to Ms Stothard, a Malaysian who specifically noted that she had absolutely no family or ethnic links with Myanmar, “Businesses have to do adequate due diligence to make sure they are not directly or indirectly implicated for serious violations of human rights actions.” However, she admitted that it is “almost impossible for them to do this”. Things are changing much too fast in Myanmar, and at the moment there is no rule of law, no independent judiciary. The legislation and legal institutions are non-existent and the necessary reforms have not been made.”

She added, “The war is technically over in some parts of Burma but the people are still facing the same old problems.”

One critical problem is that villagers who have lived in those areas for decades never needed land title deeds to prove ownership. Their home-grown, traditional systems were enough. Today, the report says villagers who attempt to register land title within the new system face institutional corruption, insurmountable expense and a complicated system that fails to reflect accurately the local realities of land use. “These factors conspire to deny villagers’ land and livelihood rights, while facilitating land confiscation, rural displacement and investment that frequently has no benefit for the local community.”

Panelists declined to name any of the violating companies but an accompanying video clearly identified a major Thai construction conglomerate that is the prime developer of the Dawei deep-sea port. Another mega-project is the Shweygin Dam.  A major road network will soon link Thailand and Myanmar through the Karen-dominated Eastern Myanmar region. As the economic infrastructure moves in, the landgrabs will only get worse. The tourism sector is not directly identified as a culprit anywhere in the report, but it certainly risks getting caught up in any controversy that may emerge later.

Another of the Karen representatives, Mr. Saw Albert, said the villagers and human rights groups are getting organised to counter what could be potentially irreversible problems. They also want to send a clear signal to the investors that the victims of the land-grabs deserve to be heard.

According to the report, “The complaints recorded are important, and deserve attention, first and foremost because they represent the lived experience of villagers who are directly affected by the actions of myriad actors in a rapidly changing Myanmar. It is intended to assist all stakeholders, including Myanmar government officials, business actors, potential and current investors, and local and international non-profit organisations, as they work to:

(1) Acknowledge and avoid the potential for abuse caused directly or in complicity with other actors;

(2) Further investigate, verify and respond to allegations of abuse;

(3) Address the obstacles that prevent rural communities from engaging with protective frameworks; and

(4) Take more effective steps to ensure sustainable, community-driven development that will not destabilize efforts for peace and ethnic inclusion.”

The report warns that local villagers are beginning to employ various forms of collective action that provide viable avenues to gain representation and compensation and to forestall expropriation. Their “ability to navigate local power dynamics and negotiate for unofficial remedies, championed in some cases by an increasingly active domestic media, is forging new and promising avenues for collective action and association,” it says.

“While ceasefire negotiations are ongoing, investors and other development actors should proceed with extreme caution. Until outstanding claims, including those of a currently dislocated population of IDPs and refugees, have been resolved and an integrated, community-centered system of land tenure applied, actors should recognize that even if they make diligent, good-faith efforts to identify and fairly compensate landowners, they could still be faced with legitimate claims to the land in the future.”

It adds, “The ultimate aim of any land-governance reforms should be to protect the property rights of people in Myanmar, while providing an environment that allows for sustainable economic development for their benefit. Communities are best placed to make decisions about local development in accordance with their priorities and needs, including handling dispute resolution and managing resource revenue for the benefit of the community. Domestic legal standards are necessary, but they will be inadequate if the protection they purport to provide is inaccessible, inappropriate to affected communities or flouted in practice. The more opportunities at the local, national and international levels for villagers in eastern Myanmar to respond to unjust land practices, the greater the chance that such issues will be addressed and practices reformed for the benefit of all actors involved.”