Thein figures that the annual loss of income from the seizure is about $66,000 and, nearly one year later, says his village has yet to be compensated.
“The money is temporary; the loss of land is permanent, for generations to come,” he said.
Land-grabbing, a scourge of rural communities during the dark years of military dictatorship, endures in the new Burma. While sanctions are over and Western leaders have encouraged investment in the former pariah state, a heap of cases suggests that well-connected business interests are systemically taking advantage of the poor and uneducated to position themselves for big profits.
Burmese officials contend that some acquisitions are necessary to increase productivity and entice foreign investors ready to enter one of the world’s last virgin markets. Critics argue that heavy-handed seizures have intensified, testing the new reform-minded government and its leverage over a military with long-standing ties to China.
“Burma’s least-advantaged citizens are still getting steamrolled across the country, losing their land to powerful elites and their international partners, and facing abuses when they stand up to exercise their human rights,” said Matthew Smith, a Burma expert with Human Rights Watch. “The same government that is getting praise internationally is sometimes violently pushing aside communities who happen to live on top of valuable resources.”
While the dominance of the former military regime is no longer, two new land laws passed last year have faced heavy criticism for the broad power they allow the government to seize land in the national interest. The Asian Human Rights Commission told the United Nations that Burma was at risk of a “land-grabbing epidemic” if the laws are not amended.
Familiar methods deployed
Reports of land confiscation now stretch from the remote southern coast and northern border areas linked by oil and gas pipelines, to urban centers in the heart of the country where smaller industrial projects are usurping fertile agricultural lands.
In Letpadaung, a copper-rich area west of Mandalay, four of 26 villages have been razed and communities have lost more than 7,800 acres to the mining project. Some residents were moved to government-built resettlement camps; others say they were duped into taking money for short-term use, only to learn that they had forfeited their land entirely.
Out of habit, no one dared speak out. But amid a gathering tide of reforms, student organizer Ye Yint Kyaw, 27, said he became convinced in April that the “moment was right to take a chance” and rally angry residents against the project, a joint venture between the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and China’s Wanbao Co.