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HomeNewsEnvironmentGround control: militarization and the theft of Burma's land

Ground control: militarization and the theft of Burma’s land

Rosalie Smith

Apr 23, 2009 (DVB), In the last two decades Burma has aggressively expanded its military, doubling army personnel to the point where now there is one troop for every 100 citizens.

Only North Korea now ranks higher than Burma for army size relative to country population. This has been helped along by the 29 per cent of total government spending being allocated to defence; all despite Burma having no external enemies.

To date, international media has almost myopically focused on detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the other 2,100 political prisoners held behind bars. Rightly so, the picture being broadcast is of a government bent on controlling its population through starvation of resources and freedom. But beyond this, the human cost sacrificed to support Burma's military might has seldom been exposed.

The aggressive expansion of the military has required land on which to build more barracks, outposts and training sites. According to Holding our Ground, a report released earlier this week on land confiscation in Arakan state, Mon state and the Pa-O region of southern Shan state, Burma's farmers have borne the brunt of this.

The report documents the increasing incidences of land confiscation. The problem is widespread, and farmers and villagers whose land and livelihood is being stolen often receive no compensation. Indeed, many are then forced to work on the government projects carried out on their old land.

It also documents how soldiers moving onto confiscated land in ethnic states are encouraged to either bring with them their families or marry local women, while schools close to militarised areas are banned from teaching ethnic languages. This is all part of a policy to dilute people's ethnic identity.

Legally, there are no obstacles that prevent the government or army from confiscating land. Unlike the majority of functional democracies in the world, Burma doesn't recognise private land ownership. A single farmer is powerless if an official decides that his land is needed for government purposes.

To compound the problem, there are substantial risks for people who complain about land confiscation.

"People often get arrested or fined as punishment if they inform organisations like [International Labour Organisation] that their land has been confiscated," said Aung Marm Oo, chief author of Holding Our Ground.

"Sometimes the local community has to complain to the very authorities who confiscated their land."

Stolen land is also providing lucrative business for the government. The Karen Human Rights Group recently found that large tracts of land have been confiscated and sold on to Max (Myanmar) Company who intend to use the area for rubber cultivation.

Villagers in western Karen state speak of their fear of being relocated. Many of them have been forced to work as porters for the army or on stretches of the Asian Highway being constructed in the area. Arbitrary arrests and extortion have also been reported.

Similarly, foreign companies' interests in Burma's natural resources have accelerated land confiscation. The Yadana and Yetagun natural gas pipelines in the early 1990's are perhaps the most obvious example of this.

According to EarthRights International's report, pipeline construction resulted in numerous villages within 20 miles either side of the pipeline being relocated. Western oil companies Total, Premier and Unocal were in partnership with the ruling State Peace and Development Council in construction of the pipeline.

And now the Burmese government is working with corporations from South Korea, India and China to build an overland pipeline running across northwest Burma to China.

"The energy resources are not being used for Burma but are sold to a foreign country," said Ko Kin, spokesperson for the anti-pipeline campaign group, Shwe Gas Movement.

"Farmlands on the way will be confiscated and more troops will be stationed for the pipeline's security," he said, adding that plans for the pipeline have already caused forcible relocation of locals.

According to Aung Htoo, general secretary of exiled lawyers group, Burma Lawyer's Council, land confiscation is common in the numerous ethnic states, although there is a lack of valid data. This is likely one of the reasons for the problem being neglected by the media.

Owner of all the lands

The impunity under which the Burmese government operates is staggering. Numerous laws have been established that blatantly prioritise military strength and financial capital over civilian rights.

Article 18 of the 1974 constitution states that 'the State is the ultimate owner of all natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the waters and in the atmosphere, and also of all the lands.'

This law was revalidated in 2004 and adopted as one of the state's fundamental principles. Thus, farmers are leaseholders with a right to cultivate their land, but the state remains the ultimate owner.

The only breath of hope would be the Land Acquisition Act, which states that if the government wants to occupy private land, it has to provide notice and some kind of compensation to the land owners, although this only comes into play when the land is fallow.

Regardless, many farmers don't even know about the possibility of seeking justice for themselves, says Aung Marm Oo.

'Holding Our Ground' found that between 1998 and 2002, over 7,000 acres of land and hundreds of millions of kyats worth of crops and plantations in Mon state were confiscated. This has left a vast number of Mon unemployed and poverty stricken.

The International Labour Organisation is the only body to deal with land confiscation in Burma, although it only accepts cases where confiscation issues are the result of proven case of forced labour.

The risks for complaints are substantial, however. In January labour activist Zaw Htay was sentenced to ten years imprisonment after helping farmers in Magwe division file a report to the ILO on land seizures. His lawyer Pho Phyu, was subsequently sentenced in March to four years imprisonment after defending him at the trial.

Groups such as Burma Lawyer's Council are investing resources in collecting valid data about land confiscation but, they say, the problem can only be tackled properly when the Burmese government takes the first step. Yet with one eye focused firmly on military dominance, and the other on staving off economic collapse, land confiscation is likely to continue.

"First, as long as the state does not recognise private ownership of land, there's no hope for the people," said Aung Htoo.

"What can the people do?"


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