Since the end of the military government in 2011, Myanmar has sought a transition towards a market-based economy and has aimed to attract large domestic and foreign investment into the countries designated ‘least developed areas’. Local villagers suffer however commonly under the vast land confiscations this development brings with it and affected communities receive often little redress for the harmful consequences they may face. While before 2011, land confiscation was largely conducted by the Military Junta, it is now the business sector that is turning into the most important driver of land acquisition [1;5].
The Myotha Industrial Park, developed by the domestic company Mandalay Myotha Industrial Development (MMID), is an example of this trend. While MMID describes the project development as a “win-win” situation for all, the human rights abuses documented in relation to large-scale evictions are in sharp contrast to these claims, as a study from FIDH has detailed in late 2017 .
The project was formally approved in January 2013, when the Mandalay Regional government adopted the Master Plan for the Myotha Industrial Park and the adjunct Semeikhon Port (see project details) and an agreement was signed between MMID and Mandalay Region Chief Minister Ye Myint. At least 4,047 hectares of land were provided to the project that aims to develop the area mainly for industries, but also for residencies, commercial and research facilities, and a golf course. The Mandalay Industrial Development Authority will receive 20% of the leases from the Industrial Park to investors. MMID applied for a tax exemption because the project is in one of Myanmar’s ‘least developed regions, which according to the 2016 Investment Law can be exempted from taxes for up to seven years. Compensations to the farmers formerly using the land had to be paid by MMID . Development work started in early 2014 and the first five pilot factories began operations on Jun 30, 2016 . An increasing number of potential investors from Japan, Korea, Thailand, India, Singapore and China are now visiting the site .
The project was developed on land of villagers used for agriculture and/or livestock raising for at least three generations. The company claims to have conducted Impact Assessments, however they were not made public despite of promises to do so. While some meetings where held with the villagers to inform them about the project, FIDH reports a lack of adequate consultation with villagers during the development of the project and a failure to comply with both national laws and international human rights standards .
According to FIDH, the process to determine compensation payments was marked by inadequate procedures, corruption and intimidation of villagers. More than 1,000 families from 14 villages lost their land, which was their most important livelihood asset. Land was measured inadequately and incorrect by authorities, sometimes only accounting for 10-25% of villagers’ land. Many villagers complained that only ‘planted’ land was measured, whereas farmers commonly do not plant all their land areas, to reserve some land for recovery of soil fertility, firewood collection, and other uses. Furthermore, compensation rates were below market value (see project details) and many families were unable to buy replacement land with the compensation money. Some farmers and activists also reported corruption among authorities, stating they asked them to pay up to 148$ (200,000 Kyat) for accurate land measurement .
Following the dispossession, evictions and the lack of economic resources to buy replacement land, many villagers have migrated to other places to seek for new livelihoods, while others have accepted jobs at the construction site, which they describe as badly paid “cheap hard labor”. Others have incurred debt to deal with the difficult situation. As a woman from Than Bo Village said, “[d]eveloping the country is good. But if to develop the country, people have to suffer, that is not fair.” (cited in FIDH report, ).
Conflict between affected villagers and the company has endured since project development started. Since 2013, farmers have sent complaint letters to local and national authorities, as well as to the Farmland Investigation Commission (FIC). While in mid-2013, 300 families refused the compensation, most of the families ended up accepting the payment, because they feared losing everything. Many also felt intimidated by authorities to do so . Those who had refused the compensation set up lookout camps to protect their land against bulldozing, which also occurred at night time. In many occasions, farmers confronted the bulldozers directly to stop land clearing. Those who resisted throughout 2017 tried to negotiate the compensation with help of local land rights activists and political party NLD members. However, in a communication from July 22, 2017, the local township government stated the rates were correct . The company too claims that development was done in a right and lawful way .
Following the villagers’ resistances, the criminalization of local activists increased. In total, at least 55 villagers were detained, arrested or faced charges for attempting to oppose land clearance and confiscation . On November 17, 2014, more than 800 people protested peacefully against the project and for the release of detained farmers. More protests followed, supported by land rights activists, Buddhist monks and civil society groups such as the FNI-FL (Farmers Network Interest of Farmers and Labor). Among the land rights activists was also Mr. Zarni, Director of the Saitta Thukha Development Institute, who started to received death threats following his involvement. He believes these incidents were directly related to his activism in the Mandalay region .
As of early 2018, the conflict continues and concerns remain over dispossession and displacement, relocation and inadequate compensation, and the criminalization and repression of activists.