One day while boarding a crowded public bus from work, my friend reached out and paid for my fare. I protested, but she responded that her government has told her to be kind to visiting foreigners. This conversation mirrors other conversations I have had with Burmese during my time here. Almost unanimously, Burmese have had only positive things to say about the new international presence in the country, largely based on the belief that foreigners “will bring us development”.
I am not as encouraged.
It is not the international interest in Myanmar that is problematic, or surprising. After all, Myanmar is touted as one of Asia’s last untapped markets. The Southeast Asian country is located strategically between China and India, and is rich in natural resources including oil, copper, and jade. Myanmar has a large, young, and “underemployed” population, ripe for rapid industrialization and the promotion of deregulated “Special Economic Zones”. The political situation in the country also makes this a favourable time for economic development. Last June, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein prioritized high economic growth in his reform strategy, citing the successes of Myanmar’s East Asian neighbours.
What is more worrying is the influence of corporate interests in Myanmar’s still nascent process of reform. Corporate influence is neither a new problem in Myanmar, nor is it a problem unique to this country. Such economic interests are now playing a large role shaping the direction of reforms, as the Myanmar government is mindful that development will require far-reaching institutional reforms to create an environment conducive to foreign trade and investment. Investors and foreign governments are prioritizing these types of reforms, providing aid and support for “capacity-building” and “rule of law” projects to target the current reality of rampant corruption and weak legal institutions. If promoted with the population’s interests in mind, these programs have the potential to bring benefits for the whole population, however, recent practices in the country point to a style of development that may promote instability and inequality instead.
The most salient examples include the recent government crackdowns on protests against economic development projects. For example, on July 7th, a court handed activist Aung Soe a 10-year sentence for leading a peaceful protest against the Chinese-backed copper mine in Letpadaung. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.
When farmers refused compensation from the Wanbao Company for their land and continued to plow their fields, police and firefighters arrived on scene, injuring ten people and arresting three. In fact, the Karen Human Rights Group has noted that Myanmar’s security forces “have a track record of targeting individuals who openly criticize [government-backed industrialization] with interrogations, threats, and other acts of harassment”.
Corporate influence is also apparent in the government’s approach to reforming the national land laws. Last year, the government passed two controversial land laws without consulting the population, including politically unrepresented rural farmers. Under the Farmland law and the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Management law, the state remains the ultimate owner of land. Individuals and companies may register
for land use certificates in order to secure certain land rights.
These land laws neither recognize customary land ownership, the practice of the majority of rural farming communities, nor the rights of displaced populations mostly from ethnic minority areas. Only 15% of farmers currently hold such land certificates, due to the costs and necessary documentation for land registration. Without the certificates, farmers have no ownership rights over the land, and much of this land is formally recognized as “unused,” facilitating land confiscation on the part of both the government and corporations.
In fact, land confiscation for agribusiness and large-scale industrial projects—escalating due to the convergence of military, business, and government interests—is now one of the most significant threats to people’s livelihoods. The increase in land theft appears also to be motivated by state agencies and domestic corporations’ efforts to position themselves favorably to welcome foreign investment.
Land issues are also increasingly controversial political issues, with a risk of renewing ethnic tensions in the country, as the communities most affected by land conflict are resource-rich areas populated by Myanmar’s ethnic minority communities. Many of these groups have been fighting intermittently for autonomy since Myanmar gained independence in 1948. Indications that the central government will not prioritize rural ethnic minority interests may destabilize the current fragile peace.
The Myanmar government is listening intently to international advice and recommendations and some of the most influential actors on the ground now are foreign companies, governments, and international organizations. Therefore, the international community has a prime opportunity to play a positive role in the country. Local human rights and political groups have coalesced around the importance of renewed land law reform, explaining that the key to restoring agricultural strength in the country, and thereby improving living conditions and decreasing food insecurity, is to ensure that farmers have control over their lands and what they grow. Furthermore, as ethnic minority groups engage in ceasefire negotiations with the government, the international community should encourage the development of a policy to address the land situation of those displaced by conflict. Finally, it is also essential that large-scale developments include processes of informed community consultations and fair compensation when communities agree to give up their lands.
Many Burmese are welcoming foreigners with open arms and with hopes of gaining insight on how to reform their country. It is more important than ever that foreigners take this responsibility seriously, learn from prior mistakes, and support development efforts that are truly beneficial for the country as a whole. Land law reforms and respect for local land use are a good place to start.