Myanmar's democratic transition

Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to tackle military land grabs in litmus test for Myanmar government

NLD plans to solve all land-grab cases within one year but must contend with powerful business interests, many linked to the military

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 11:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 11:04pm

By the standards of her village in Myanmar’s swampy Ayeyarwady Delta, Than Shin was a prosperous woman. She had eight hectares of farmland on which her family grew rice.

But her fortunes changed in 2000 when the military government informed her it was taking possession of her land. Over the next year, Than Shin watched as the fields that for decades had provided her family with a living were cleared to make way for fish farms.

Today, Than Shin and her family live in a thatched shack along the main road leading to Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon. Her 67-year-old husband goes door to door on his bicycle selling soybeans.

“We depended on that land our whole lives. When they grabbed it, we had nothing, no income. We had to eat curry made from leaves,” she said.

Than Shin’s story is just one example of what the ruling party of Aung San Suu Kyi says was the systematic confiscation of land from farmers by the army and the placing of that land in the hands of crony companies close to the military junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century.

The fish farms that were built on her land were owned by a company linked to then regional military commander Shwe Mann, who is now one of Myanmar’s most powerful political figures, according to a Reuters review of corporate filings.

When Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) stormed to power in elections last November, its victory was fuelled in part by rural anger over land seizures and the party’s pledge to provide redress. Just days after the NLD formed the first government since 1962 that is not backed by the military, the new deputy agriculture minister told local media that returning land to its rightful owners was the duty of the government.

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Now the NLD is moving to make good on that promise. The parliament member overseeing the effort, Sein Win, said the party aims to solve all land-grab cases within one year.

That’s an ambitious time frame. In untangling land disputes, the new government will have to contend with powerful business interests, many linked to the military. That could put Suu Kyi on a collision course with the generals and threaten Myanmar’s fragile transition to democracy.

The NLD’s Sein Win estimates that the number of land-grab cases is in the hundreds of thousands. Based on surveys conducted by the party’s branches around the country, he says that between three to five million acres of land was forcibly taken by the military.

Shwe Mann, the former army commander, held the powerful post of speaker in the previous military-dominated parliament. Today, he is a close confidante of Suu Kyi.

In a rare interview, he defended the junta’s actions, saying that vast swathes of land were allocated to him in his capacity as the regional commander and to local authorities by the government as part of a national project by Myanmar’s military rulers in the 1990s to bolster food security and agricultural production. All the land in the area he oversaw, he said, was “vacant, fallow or virgin” and so the junta’s actions were not illegal.

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Still, Shwe Mann said there could be a discrepancy between “what’s on the map in the land record office and the situation on the ground”. In the past, he said, farmers did not want to register land as agricultural to avoid participation in a socialist economy.

The previous military-dominated parliament set up two bodies to investigate and mediate land-grab cases, but was criticised for dragging its feet. In total, the government reviewed 17,000 cases, but only resolved around 1,000, according to local media reports.

With Suu Kyi’s party now taking the lead, the new government has formed a task force to deal with land-grab cases. In June alone, 2,603 hectares of land that was seized in the Ayeyarwady Delta was returned to 324 villagers, according to the state-owned Myanma Alinn Daily and local media.

The vast majority of land was taken in the 1990s and early 2000s, amid a military-led transition from socialism to a market-driven economy. The state owned all land, but farmers were granted rights to cultivate it.

“The land grabs were done by the [junta] government, with most of it going to the military, companies, government departments and ministries,” the NLD’s Sein Win said.

Hta Ni village, a collection of hamlets about two hours from Yangon, encapsulates the challenge facing Suu Kyi.

Whether or not these cases will be solved depends on whether the NLD has a good relationship with the military commander-in-chief
Myint Naing, Human Rights Watch Defence

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, local authorities under then-Southwestern Regional Military Commander Shwe Mann seized roughly 404 hectares from about 200 homes, according to local paralegals who base their estimate on statements and documents from villagers.

It was during this period that 191 hectares of land in Hta Ni was handed to Asia Might Co Ltd, the company with ties to Shwe Mann, for an aquaculture project. The former commander confirmed that Asia Might was linked to him and that it took part in the project at his request.

He also confirmed that the company was run at the time by Min Naing, whom he described as a “close friend.” A brother of Shwe Mann served as a company director and was a minority shareholder, according to corporate filings.

“When it comes to my role, I take full responsibility,” said Shwe Mann. “I acted according to the existing law.” Min Naing did not respond to questions from Reuters that were sent via a son of Shwe Mann.

“There are a lot of villages, particularly across the delta, which have lost almost all of their agricultural land to land grabs,” said Tim Millar, the Myanmar programme director of Namati, a legal aid group involved in helping farmers in Myanmar retrieve their land.

With the start of Myanmar’s transition away from military rule in 2011, villagers began actively demanding the return of land. After its November election victory, the NLD instructed its branches across the country to gather information on land dispute cases. Now that the review has begun, the NLD’s Sein Win is hoping his party’s massive parliamentary majority will forestall any resistance from the military.

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It won’t be easy. The country’s constitution still reserves key ministerial posts for the military, including defence, border affairs and internal affairs. And Suu Kyi’s relationship with the army is strained: The constitution drafted by the military in 2008, for instance, bars her from the presidency.

“Whether or not these cases will be solved depends on whether the NLD has a good relationship with the military commander-in-chief,” said Myint Naing, the director of Human Rights Watch Defence, a local NGO in the Ayeyarwady Delta that is helping the villagers in Hta Ni.

If they’re not resolved, “we’ll be forced to take to the streets,” he said.