Land compensation issues. Same story. Different country. Everywhere villagers feel they have been unfairly compensated or treated. Why?
San Shar Tin’s frail bamboo house is a lonely redoubt against the industrial revolution due to engulf it and the surrounding grassland southeast of Yangon, the main city in Myanmar.
The 41-year-old has rejected government efforts to force her to take a pay-off to leave her farm smallholding, to make way for the first stage of a huge Japan-backed manufacturing zone to be built there.
“The officials said there were two options,” she said, recalling compensation talks that she claims began with a “joke” offer of $800 for her 12-acre plot. “One was to accept the government deal; the other was to be arrested.”
The defiance of Ms San Shar Tin and some fellow local residents is emerging as an important test of how Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government and its international partners handle a contentious subject from its dictatorial past: land and who owns it.
As officials from both capitals, Naypyidaw and Tokyo, gathered last Saturday for a groundbreaking ceremony at the industrial project, known as the Thilawa special economic zone, questions were being raised over how they are balancing the development rush against citizens’ rights that previous military juntas routinely trampled over.
“The Thilawa project is landmark, in terms of doing a proper population resettlement plan,” said one Yangon-based analyst familiar with the plan. “But the problem is the government hasn’t really done things in the right order – so there is a lot a rumour and misunderstanding.”
The 2,400-hectare Thilawa project is the flagship of a series of international industrial zones planned by President Thein Sein’s government, as it tries to capitalise on the end of a half-century of isolationist rule and decades of pariah status in the west.
The zone and port development – into which the Japanese government and the finance houses Mitsubishi, Sumitomo and Marubeni will pump up to $500m of infrastructure loans – is meant to offer manufacturers in sectors from cars to clothing the kind of reliable electricity, water and logistics they lack elsewhere in the country.
It is an initiative that even some of the Thilawa residents battling the government say they welcome in principle, as a source of jobs in an agricultural area where a sleepy-looking metal roofing factory owned by the Myanmar military’s commercial arm is one of the few active companies. “We are not opposing the plan,” insisted Mya Hline, a 67-year-old rice farmer and local elder. “But the government violated the community’s rights.”
At the heart of the disagreement is the 1997 purchase by the then military junta of the Thilawa land for about $20 per acre, after which residents continued to farm it for rice, vegetables and goat-grazing. While the government says the deal means the villagers are entitled now only to compensation for their houses and up to six years’ lost crops, some locals say they still legally and morally own land that is now worth thousands of dollars an acre thanks to Myanmar’s post-dictatorship property boom.
A group of Thilawa residents outlined their two-pronged compensation claim at a meeting in November, in a house where a wall-mounted Google Earth printout showed the affected area. First, they say the military forced them to sell at a massive discount. Second, they allege that – under a law passed in 2012 – the land would have reverted to them anyway, because of the government’s failure to develop it over the past 15 years.
Although scores of Thilawa farmers have agreed to the new government’s compensation terms, some say they did so only because of threats by local officials. “They said: ‘If you don’t sign, we will send a report to the higher levels,’” said U Kyaw Win, 39, adding that he had never been given a copy of the deal he signed. “We have been under military dictatorship for such a long time – we are still in the old habits.”
A few kilometres away and several hours later, other displaced residents stood among wooden planks, rolls of metal fencing and discarded watermelon rinds, watching builders work intensely to finish their houses. Ma Thidar, 29, said she had accepted about $3,000 for her crops and $2,500 to build a home, but was not happy either with the compensation or the government’s alleged failure to consult and inform residents. Asked why she had agreed to go, she said: “Even if we don’t want to move, they will bulldoze.”
Winston Set Aung, national chairman of the Thilawa zone’s management committee, insisted residents had been consulted repeatedly and were being compensated fairly. He added that the authorities were bound to make some mistakes, as this was a pioneering effort to comply with international standards never before used in Myanmar. “This is the first experience,” he said. “We can’t claim we are perfect in every step.”
Jica, the Japanese international development agency which is partnering the Myanmar government on the Thilawa project, declined to comment. Masaki Takahara, the executive managing director in Yangon for Jetro, the Japanese trade promotion agency, said Tokyo had received reassurances from the government in Naypyidaw that the relocation of residents would be handled properly. “If some dispute is raised, it might affect the reputation of the Japanese private sector companies,” he said. “So we hope that it’s settled in a good manner.”
Few would deny the Myanmar government has behaved more responsibly than the military junta would have done over a process that was bound to anger the people displaced. But the Thilawa case is also a warning to the administration and its foreign allies of how a history of official land grabs, coercion and secrecy – and people’s memories of them – will have an impact on many of the grand economic plans for the new Myanmar.
“I didn’t expect this,” said San Shar Tin, of what she feels is the excessive pressure by officials on her to leave. “How they are talking at a high level is different from how they are behaving at the grassroots.”