In October of this year, the government of Myanmar released its draft National Land Use Policy (NLUP) for public comment. As the Thein Sein government races into the 21st century after decades of isolation, this policy promises to address problems with land use and reflects the government’s reform process in regard to land rights, which have been at the heart of many of the conflicts throughout the Southeast Asian country. This presents potentially good news for foreign investors in Myanmar but it is not without its pitfalls.
For decades, land confiscation has been at the center of many of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. However, as noted in a recent article in the Burma Times, “[t]he current Myanmar government is working hand-in-hand with former military-favored businessmen and their companies, enabling them to gain access to the country’s biggest and most promising new billion-dollar asset: land.” This exacerbates well founded fears that the draft policy legitimizes land seizures in the name of “rule of law.” “[T]he new land-related laws are haphazardly and improperly applied to legally turn farmers into “squatters” and their farm fields into “vacant wastelands” for corporate investment,” according to the Burma Times.
Recognizing that “[f]orcible and uncompensated land confiscation is a source of conflict and abuse in Burma, protests and fear of “land grabs” have escalated as the state opens its markets to foreign investors and pursues policies to dramatically increase industrial agricultural production.” USAID has actively supported this model of land use reform. However, this draft land use regulation masks serious conflicts between the central government and ethnic groups throughout the country.
In its Statement of Ethnic Community Development Forum and the Customary Land Protection Committee Concerning Myanmar’s National Land Use Policy, a coalition of 31 Myanmar organizations laid out a 12-point critique of the draft NLUP.
The Statement notes that the draft of the national land use policy prioritizes and gives special privileges to business investors, which could spark more land grabs and create further conflict. In addition, a major omission in the draft plan is a failure to address the previous military government’s land seizures as well as the current land problems in various parts of the country and there are no provisions in the draft policy that addresses issues of land distribution, restitution, and the right to return for internally displaced peoples. This is of particular concern for the more than 100,000 Rohingya people, ethnic Muslims displaced and interred in refugee camps by the Burmese government. Finally, the draft policy does not address the principle of free, prior, informed consent nor is it consistent with the Tenure Guidelines of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, according to the Committee.
These reforms come at a time when the country is seeking foreign direct investment in order to bolster its economy. While the proposed rules promise a more certain future for economic development, land use remains fraught with risk for businesses entering this emerging market. While businesses entering into Myanmar may take comfort in greater regulatory certainty that is promised by this new policy, inadequacies in land use regulations will inevitably lead to all too common conflicts arising out of disputes between the central government relying on the rule of law and rural ethnic communities that lose their lands and livelihoods from new business development. Ignoring this problem puts businesses at serious reputational if not financial risk.