The phrase “land grab” has become common in Myanmar, often making front page news. This reflects the more open political space available to talk about injustices, as well as the escalating severity and degree of land dispossession under the new government.
But this seemingly simple two-word phrase is in fact very complex and opaque. It thus deserves greater clarity in order to better understand the deep layers of meaning to farmers in the historical political context of Myanmar.
Understanding the deeper significance and meaning that farmers attach to the words “land grab” entails frank discussions of formerly taboo subjects related to the country’s history of armed conflict, illicit drugs, cronyism and racism.
Various state and non-state armed actors have been responsible for land grabs in Myanmar during the past several decades, mirroring recent historical periods.
Through the Great Depression under British colonial rule, the Japanese occupation during WWII and eventual freedom from foreign domination, rice production in the Ayeyarwady Delta, propped up by British colonial capitalism, collapsed under heavy debt burdens, with farmers losing their land and livelihoods.
Fast-forward through General Ne Win’s reign and the lead-up to the 1988 uprisings, during which authoritarian, quasi-socialist principles were applied to land and livelihoods in the Burman lowland areas. Meanwhile, war and counterinsurgency spread through the different ethnic upland peripheries, waged in part by ethnic militia proxies.
After the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) – later the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – took power in September 1988, the country’s first experiment in post-colonial capitalism sparked a new wave of land grabs. This time the main culprit was the Burmese military, which had orders to “do business”.
In reality, this mostly resulted in abandoned factories and idle “wastelands” forcibly emptied of farmers and their productive labor.
Farmers today have been confronted by yet another wave of land grabs following Cyclone Nargis, constitutional reform, a new Western-legitimated government, and neoliberal economic and legal reform packages.
Whereas land grabs during previous periods were predominately conducted directly by military-state and non-state armed actors for their benefit alone, “crony companies” with extreme wealth and political leverage have become the new driver of land grabs in different parts of the country, often financially backed by foreign investors.
As the Myanmar military recedes from direct involvement in the country’s political and economic affairs, the power of the gun is less necessary to secure land concessions.
Instead, the newly-minted Myanmar government, backed by its new land-related laws and policies, is working hand-in-hand with former military-favored businessmen and their companies, enabling them to gain access – now “legal” – to the country’s biggest and most promising new billion-dollar asset: land.
Ironically, the over-played “rule of law” mantra is what provides state legitimacy in carrying out what can be thought of now as a “legal land grab”, where the new land-related laws are haphazardly and improperly applied to legally turn farmers into “squatters” and their farm fields into “vacant wastelands” for corporate investment.
When the law books are not enough to legitimate the “legal land grab”, the government releases its police force to convince farmers that the principle of “might is right” still applies. Farmers at Letpadaung and in Kachin State’s Hukaung Valley, or those at the struggling Special Economic Zones (SEZs), need no such reminder.
This means we have entered the terrain of “legal land grabs” that cannot easily be contested on legal grounds, including more than 5.2 million acres of private agribusiness concessions that have been awarded to date. Of this, more than 3 million acres have been “legally” awarded since the new government took office and started applying its new land-related laws.
The national government’s Land Acquisition Investigation Commission cannot accept any land grab cases from before 1988, or any case deemed “legal” according to the laws in effect at the time – mostly the 1991 Wastelands Law and the two new land laws enacted since 2012.
This sets a dangerous precedent for what is considered a “legal” land seizure, both past and present, and for the “rule of law”, which is being used to support so-called “legal” land grabs. But it is not only law books – backed by state police forces – that are calling the shots these days in the country’s last wild frontier. In many ethnic areas of the country – Shan State in particular – armed ethnic militias are on the frontline of land grabs in areas under their influence.
Pyithu Sit (people’s militias) and Border Guard Forces (BGFs), which have come out of the Myanmar military’s decades-long war and counterinsurgency against armed ethnic groups and communist armies, continue to use guns and intimidation to secure large-scale land concessions.
It has been well documented that many of these armed actors, which continue to escape national attention from governments and civil society despite the spotlights on the national peace process, are backed by businessmen engaged in the illicit drugs economy, and now in licit agribusiness as they seek to diversify their investment portfolios. Some of these colorful characters are now elected statesmen who help pass the very laws that enable them to legally secure their expanding “clean” loot.
In areas that are now being governed under tentative new ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government, new social and economic grievances are being documented, such as in Kayin areas. Land grabs are happening even before the ink on the peace deals has dried.
Peace as a business venture is already starting to jeopardize the national peace process and ceasefires with the different armed organizations, as local constituents come to understand “peace” as a different kind of war.
This has already happened to populations in Kachin State, where nearly two decades of ceasefire conditions enabled massive land grabs and Myanmar militarization to take place – the very reason the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has refused to commit to yet another ceasefire agreement.
Examining a political anatomy of land grabs in Myanmar not only allows us to better understand the deeper meanings and injustices associated with land grabs as viewed by farmers, but also hopefully allows us to move a step closer to solving the ongoing land conflict crisis in Myanmar.
This violent history, which continues today under new guises, is not easily forgotten by the millions who have suffered injustices, where farmers continue to view the current reform period through their own lived experiences of widespread mistrust, intimidation and dispossession.
Kevin Woods is a PhD candidate at UC-Berkeley in the United States. This article first appeared in Myanmar Times,