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Burma: Land grabbing not "in accordance with law"

December 17, 2013

Over the course of 2013 the Asian Human Rights Commission has followed reports of a larger number of conflicts over land grabs and attempted grabs in Burma, or Myanmar. Some of the conflicts are over recently taken land, and others are reinitiating struggles begun many years ago. These land grabs include the well-known expansion of the Letpadaung Hills copper mine in Salingyi Township, Sagaing Region, under a joint project of the armed forces' holding company and a Chinese partner; the conflict between farmers and police in Ma-Ubin, in the delta, over the taking of land by a private firm with backing of local officials; and, a land grab by the police force itself in Nattalin Township, Bago Region.

Most recently, news reports and online sites have detailed how villagers in Migyaunggan, Mandalay Region, have begun protesting to reclaim land taken from them by an army detachment. The local administration and cantonment board have issued warnings to protestors to desist with their actions. Meantime, senior officials have come to investigate the complaints about the land and learned that the army has no documentation to show that it is entitled to occupy the contested area.

Under noxious laws passed in 2010, prior to the transfer of power to the current semi-elected government in Burma, the army retains authority to designate and use land for a variety of purposes. In the case of the Cantonment Municipalities Law, No. 32/2010, the armed forces can establish bodies for the management of land designated as being part of cantonment towns. Under the Facilities and Operations for National Defence Law of the same year, the armed forces can issue designations concerning land under or adjacent to their facilities.

Such laws were passed with a view to ensuring the continued control by the military of large areas of land in Burma. But even with such laws and such intentions, as in earlier years, authorities have shown themselves incapable of acting "in accordance with law", irrespective of whether the law has been passed in the interests of the military or not. The authorities in Migyaunggan issued warnings supposedly in accordance with the former law; however, they have no authority to do so, since the concerned land is not part of a cantonment. An order under the latter law requires the order of a department of defence director general to have effect and so far as the AHRC is aware no such order has yet been issued.

Meanwhile, participants in protests against land grabbing who are unable or who decline to obtain authorisation for their assemblies under the Peaceful Assembly and Marching Law, No. 15/2011, end up in a revolving door situation, being charged, prosecuted and imprisoned for offences under that law and the Penal Code, released on orders from the president or other senior figures, again demonstrating and repeating the process all over. Out of 41 political prisoners released a few days ago, fully half were people detained in the period of political reform, most of them for participating in demonstrations, or organising events.

Together, these events indicate that despite the extensive political changes taking place in Burma, many old habits are continuing under new guises. While the government increasingly insists that things be done according to law, the facts suggest otherwise. Administrators and other officials are on the one hand working harder to give an impression that they have the legal authority to continue with the practices of the past, but on the other hand they are continuing to fail to come up to even the minimal domestic standards required of them. Laws on the books offer extensive opportunities for the military to protect its interests; notwithstanding, military and civilian personnel alike struggle to conform to even with the minimal standards of such odious legislation.

Little in any of this suggests a capacity or even willingness on behalf of the army in Burma and its collaborators to start doing things "in accordance with law" during the new democratic period, despite the many claims we hear to the contrary, including those professing a newfound concern for the rule of law from among persons and institutions who hitherto had demonstrated no such concern. None of it is to say that conditions have not changed over the last couple of years. Indeed, it is no longer possible for the army in most parts of Burma simply to go and seize land and use it however it likes. But nor is it yet possible to talk of people being able to resist the incursion and domination of the army and other state institutions in matters of land and livelihood. For so long as the voices of people in places like Salingyi, Nattalin, Ma-Ubin and Migyaunggan continue to be ignored, or muffled under procedures, regulations and injunctions issued to give a false impression of legality in the continued grabbing of land, it will not be possible to talk meaningfully about democracy and the rule of law in Burma.


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