Restoration of Land Rights: An Opportunity for Inclusionary Politics

Editor’s note:
This is the first of two blog posts written by Dr. Reshmi Banerjee, who is currently a visiting scholar in the Asian Studies Centre in St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She was previously a research associate in the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) in SOAS, University of London where she worked on land conflicts in Myanmar and on the political economy of the Indo-Myanmar frontier. She is a political scientist with specialization in food security and agricultural policies and has an M.Phil and Ph.D in the subject from the Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her edited book ‘Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty’ was published in February 2015.
Dr. Banerjee will be giving a talk entitled “The Political Economy of the Indo-Myanmar Frontier” at the St Antony’s Southeast Asia Seminar Series on Wednesday, 17 February at 2pm.


In an agrarian country, land is not only a source of livelihood but also of social prestige and power. Over the years, it has increasingly become a weapon of the powerful with important political and economic interests attached to it. Increasing landlessness of the marginalized sections of society which also coincides with ethnic minority areas has been a regular feature in Myanmar. This is particularly true of the regions that border neighboring India and China (the Asian giants), which have seen increasing land based conflicts accompanied by agrarian protests from the masses which have at times turned violent. The agenda of Myanmar’s inclusive and dynamic growth must necessarily include a solution to this agrarian discontent; otherwise it could derail the process of transformation of the country before it even gets started.

Land alienation is not new to Burma/Myanmar. Harold Clayton’s enquiry in 1908-09 on the indebtedness of the delta region and Thomas Couper’s enquiry in 1924 into the thirteen selected districts in lower Burma clearly indicated that smaller cultivators were constantly losing their land to moneylenders and large landlords. Throughout the 1930s, the country witnessed tensions that emerged from inequitable social divisions based on the ownership of land, control of trade and banking, administrative powers etc. The non-Burmese held key positions (the Europeans and the Indians benefited) with the Indian merchants being the largest holders of property in Rangoon. The saga of the indigenous population getting poorer and more impoverished is found in various colonial accounts which also mention the flight of Burmese agricultural labourers from the countryside to the cities. The world depression of 1929-30, the growth of nationalism, the anti-Chettiar mood (millions of acres had come into the hands of the Indian money-lending Chettiars in the 1930s) and the endless misery of the cultivators was very much a part of the country’s history. The condition of the society which Furnivall had said ‘mixed but did not combine’ became even more precarious. There was an inverse relationship between the size of the ethnic community and the socio-economic powers that it enjoyed. Two important Acts were passed in 1941 (the Land Alienation Act and the Land Purchase Act). The former would have prohibited the transfer of land from an agriculturalist to a non-agriculturalist whereas the latter would have allowed the government to purchase and restore small land-holdings to the agriculturalists. The Japanese invasion into Burma in December 1941, however, put a stop to the implementation of these Acts.

The coming of Independence in 1948 did not resolve the deep-seated contradictions in the countryside and land ownership continued to be a bone of contention throughout the second half of the century. Although land rights were important for providing security of tenure and for creating a conductive environment for farmers to invest with the possibility of land being also used as collateral, issues related to land registration, land laws and land rights did not get the deserved attention. Under Land and Agriculture Reforms, a land commission was set up and new types of loans for solar salt production, fish farming, mulberry plantations, etc. were provided by the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank, but rural poverty still seemed to be concentrated in households which were landless or had no assets. The masses hardly possessed farms which were larger than 5 acres and landlessness continued to be as high as 50% or more among ethnic minority populations. The volatility of the rice market, especially in the late 1980s, further affected the landless agricultural labourers in Burma who were also net rice purchasers. Agricultural productivity of the country was diminishing at a time when China was experiencing rural industrialization with the rise of township and village enterprises (TVEs) and India was seeing a shift from the farm to the non-farm sector. Economic growth was further hampered by continuous conflict in the peripheral areas, durable political and military repression, social tensions between different ethnic groups, and strikes and protests arising out of growing unemployment and deteriorating conditions..

In 1994, the new Myanmar Mines Law was promulgated, which allowed foreign participation in the production of gold, copper, lead, zinc, iron and steel. This particular law however did not have any provision for public participation and public disclosure. Artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) was not always reported officially and many rural people entered into it, out of the dual compulsion of poverty and repeated destruction of their sustainable means of livelihood. However, the destruction of the environment (through mining activities) further accentuated their levels of poverty. Thus they found themselves in a ‘vicious trap’. Myanmar Forest Policy was enacted in 1995, which set up objectives and policy measures like reforestation, forest industry, forest research, environmental protection, strengthening people’s awareness & participation. But the ecological rape and plunder of the “last frontier of biodiversity in Asia” still continued.

Meanwhile areas of Kachin and Shan states experienced land grabs of various kinds, arising out of a combination of factors. Sometimes it was jade and gold mining, sometimes it was excessive logging and hydropower construction. The construction of infrastructure (roads, bridges etc) and the leasing of land by the government to private companies further aggravated the process of loss of land by the farmers. Moreover, land meant for growing food crops was converted into areas for growing jatropha, with the country witnessing the phenomenon of ‘jatropha refugees’. Meanwhile the setting up of large rubber plantations in Kachin, northern Shan and Wa Autonomous Region further led to dispossession & displacement. There have also been allocations of land for oil palm, cassava, sugarcane etc. Confiscation of land by the military became a routine affair and compensation paid was never really equivalent to the actual value of the land. Borderlands have been seriously affected as these are zones of rich natural resources but poor governance. An elite oligarchy seems to be deciding the pace of change and the nature of development in these frontier areas which is already wrecking havoc on the local environment. Also it is leading to secondary damages to health & education with the riparian communities being seriously affected. Village folk rarely have either the ability or the option to approach the courts to fight against the infringement of their rights. The requisite knowledge for understanding the nuances of the process of denial of rights has also been limited; the result of which has been a very fast paced change in the rural landscape taking place at the cost of the welfare of the rural people. Landlessness and a rise in poor households has also had an impact on the food security situation in certain regions (the Chin state being a distressing example where a UNDP survey found nearly 50% of the population to be in food poverty).

Women have been badly affected as many are not only unaware of their rights of inheritance but also denied those rights by laws which are vague and not gender-neutral. Women really do not enjoy equal rights to land in Myanmar. Since they do not own land, they often have to porter for the military. Some are also easily lured away from the rural areas (on the pretext of securing jobs) but sadly find themselves trapped in a ‘living hell’ in some brothel in Thailand. Women are the worst affected whenever any kind of displacement or socio-economic upheaval occurs and thus it is not a surprise to see women being the most vulnerable in rural Myanmar. Security of family and livelihood, which should have come to a woman from ownership of land & forests, is replaced by poor bargaining power, harassment, and sexual and domestic violence as they leave their communities to find work in mines, textile factories, food processing units, etc.

Myanmar urgently needs well laid out land laws and policies. The Farmland Management Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law 2012 are not sufficient and suffer from serious shortcomings. The former does not properly specify the manner in which a farmer can apply for a LUC (Land Use Certificate) nor does the Farmland Management Body have adequate representation of farmers on its panel. The Environmental Conservation laws of 2012 do not sufficiently stress the need for an environmental or social impact assessment. The procedure for forest use rights is not clearly spelled out either. The country is a victim of the prevalence of ambivalent laws. The greater the ambivalence, the greater the confusion and thus land grabbing becomes easier. Definitions of ‘regular crop, ‘fallow land’, ‘abandoned land’ need to be drawn out clearly and the methodology of deciding the amount of compensation paid has to be standardized. Private entrepreneurs have received benefits like land tax and income tax exemptions, subsidized heavy machinery, exemption of duties on imported equipments etc, thus enhancing their opportunities for profit-making.

People have lost their resources, with community leaders, at times, being easily influenced by the glamour of foreign capital, power and opportunities offered to them. Kevin Woods has talked about the ‘legal land grab’ which is occurring in Myanmar. In 2001, Chris Cusano stated that “when people are displaced for a long time, these adaptations become normal, thus displacement starts as an aberration but becomes a constant way of life”. Therefore there is an urgent need to give ‘voice to the voiceless’. The twin issues of greed and grievance need to be addressed simultaneously.


Author: Dr. Reshmi Banerjee

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).