Agribusiness and land grabs in Myanmar

Myanmar land grab.

Land grabs demonstrate disconnect between development discourse and practice

The historical weight of the political culture of development in Burma – now more commonly referred to as Myanmar – must not be discounted during the democracy-neoliberal reform era. National development discourse and practice in Myanmar has combined elements from monarchical patronage and military authoritarianism after decades of ruling military dictatorships where the military-state ‘knows best’ for its people. If ‘development’, a very loaded and ambiguous term, is viewed as being borne out of the crucible of culture and politics, then it should come as no surprise that national development practice in Myanmar has not yet followed the newly-established government’s declarations of ’disciplined democracy’ and pro-poor, grassroots development approaches.

The former dictator Senior General Than Shwe implemented his final steps in the country’s long road map to ‘disciplined democracy’ by making U Thein Sein (himself a former regional military commander) in March 2011 the country’s first non-interim civilian president in five decades. The new military-backed President is viewed as a moderate reformist leader who has been tasked to undertake many neoliberal reforms, such as privatizing the state’s stronghold over the economy and deregulating the heavily censored media. In line with democratic ideals, the President and his top aides routinely espouse the hallmark virtues of grassroots voices, bottom-up development and transparency and accountability to its citizens.

But despite the President’s western-cultural development rhetoric, Myanmar’s government continues to fall back upon the familiar top-down authoritarian approaches to development long espoused by Myanmar’s military regime that ruled the country as a dictatorship since 1962. Meanwhile, billions of dollars of western-aligned development aid and international finance flood into Yangon and Naypyitaw to supposedly support this realignment of Myanmar’s political economy and culture, but in reality is more an effort to buy geopolitical patronage.

Reflections on which different development discourses have the higher moral ground are not the intention of this critical analysis, however. Rather, this commentary articulates the growing disconnect between on-the-ground realities of national development interventions and practices in Myanmar versus the presidential and western development industries repeated proclamations of the virtues of grassroots, pro-poor development. President U Thein Sein’s first presidential speech in 2011, various government officials’ welcoming addresses at the World Economic Forum in Naypyitaw in 2013, and the long-list of high-profile national development conferences held in Myanmar have gained acclaim from the western development community for praising the virtues of bottom-up, pro-poor national development and economic growth.1

Development as legal dispossession

Myanmar land grab

The Myanmar government’s newly drafted land laws and “land concessions” or land grabs are forcing farmers away from their lands and handing it over to corporations. (Photo by Kevin Woods.)

Despite government rhetoric of changing attitudes to support grassroots farmers as the backbone of the nation, the first two laws quickly passed in Naypyitaw’s first round of parliamentary law-making sessions were focused exclusively on turning land into capital for private sector investment and reinforcing the power of the state to reallocate land use rights from farmers to private companies. The high-level national political actors who pushed the land laws through and stifled debate hid behind the murky confusion, leaving the parliamentarians and citizens left in the dark on the fundamental significance of land in the country’s political-economic trajectory. The two land laws – the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Wasteland Law – make land into a legal commodity for the first time in Myanmar’s post-colonial history. The land grab laws were orchestrated to enable investors to lease land concessions in ‘wasteland’ and ‘fallow’ areas that farmers are using but where local land use rights and practices are not officially recognized. This is quite simply privatizing the commons by applying law books backed by police force – a historical act all too familiar in industrializing countries worldwide

The two new land laws legally disenfranchised farmers by erasing their land use rights and practices if they are without an official land use certificate (which the Land Records Department is now issuing with bribes paid, but still the vast majority of farmers have no such certificate), practice upland swidden cultivation (or taungya, which perhaps one-third of the country’s total population relies upon for their livelihoods), leave their land fallow for one planting season, or rely upon customary laws and land use practices, among myriad other restrictions.

Other land-related laws, such as the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Law and Foreign Investment Law, soon followed, all of which were engineered to reorient the legal landscape in such a way that land use, access and rights are taken away from smallholder farmers and handed over to the domestic and international private sector. These laws signify a tremendous turning point in Myanmar’s political economy that has not gone unnoticed. Instead of guns and fear of the military to dispossess farmers of their land, the ‘rule of law’ has become the newest repertoire of land grab weapons to disenfranchise farmers, now the country’s most attractive wealth-generating asset.

Haphazardly and selectively applying newly-minted laws often still requires the threat – or actual use – of the state police to forcibly remove farmers from their homes and land. Since reforms began in 2011 farmers who have strongly protested land grabs have been confronted by police forces, with incendiary devices and even bullets used in some cases. Just before the EU-Myanmar business summit in late 2013, the EU began a series of trainings with the Myanmar police force in crowd control practices. The timing of this sort of engagement, which was also while the EU and Myanmar government was negotiating an international arbitration agreement, leads to one interpretation that crowd control trainings are in anticipation of growing peasant and urban-led protests against western-supported economic reform measures.

The new litany of land-related laws enables ‘legal’ land grabs that cannot be legally contested. Large-scale agribusiness concessions, for example, are now considered a legal and legitimate method to reallocate fertile land away from farmers to corporate interests as the government proclaims industrial agricultural production as the way to achieve a modern developed nation. For example, agribusiness concessions have increased by about 3 million acres, up to 5.2 million acres as of mid-2013, since President U Thein Sein took office, all of which is considered as legal and part of the country’s new dictated development path.

Peasant resistances against land dispossession have involved an array of both legal and so-called ‘illegal acts in an attempt to either return stolen land to farmers, or in other cases to be more adequately compensated following international standards. In some cases, particularly in lowland Burman communities, farmers have relied upon the law to take their fight over land to the courts. In other cases, particularly by whole communities forcibly relocated by large-scale agribusiness concessions and SEZs, villagers have protested without permission and in some cases armed themselves not with law books but by homemade weapons to protect themselves against police forces.

The country-wide farmer protests against these acts of coercive, top-down and sometimes violent land grabs are now the most heated topic for the media, international development community and the Myanmar national government. Farmers are demonstrating their desires for another approach to development that is more bottom-up, pro-poor, and culturally and economically appropriate for Myanmar’s majority rural population – which is precisely what the President’s Office has also repeatedly demanded. Instead, a different reality has confronted these competing development discourses: the country’s new political prisoners are front-line farmers resisting land dispossession who have been arrested, beaten, followed, interrogated, and shot at in the name of the rule of law and national economic growth.

Deceptive developments in smallholder agriculture

Another emerging form of smallholder dispossession, which is more sinister in design by being cast as being pro-poor smallholder development, is integrating farmers into global agricultural commodity supply chains. Western governments and aid agencies are bankrolling the Myanmar government’s land policy reform and development process to ensure increased land tenure security for the explicit purpose of politically and economically enabling smallholders’ production to be inserted into global supply chains. USAID, the US government’s international development aid arm, just announced a multi-year agricultural development program in Myanmar where public-private partnerships (the holy trinity), led by some of the world’s largest capital-intensive agribusiness MNCs, will connect select farmers in Myanmar with the likes of Unilever and Monsanto-dominated global agro-commodity markets.2 The same agency is co-financing the country’s land policy reform to legally equip farmers with the legal land rights to allow them to be securely inserted into these supply chains.

The western-supported and financed agro-industrial investment packages, backed by associated laws and policies, are presented to farmers and their advocates as an apolitical gift that seemingly meets their demands for pro-smallholder policies and grassroots development goals. A more critical analysis is needed, however, to better understand what this type of development push from beyond actually means for farmers, and more importantly, for whom. This type of development intervention is not meant to target smallholder farmers who cultivate under 5 acres, which is the norm in most agro-ecological zones and indigenous areas of the country, who have little to no experience with high-yielding seed varieties and high-input chemical applications. Instead, the type of farmer who will qualify are ‘business farmers’, or those with 50 acres or more of land, who are trying to secure better access to land and capital to scale up their operations – best represented by Myanmar Farmers Association and the Myanmar Rice Federation, the leaders of which have a good working relationship with the old-military guard, cronies, and the development aid community.

Vertical integration of smallholder production schemes into global supply chains shifts significant risks to farmers. Farmers will quickly find themselves at the bottom of the chain of highly volatile and complex global agro-food and biofuel markets with little to no safety net provided by the state or the private sector. In order to scale up their operations, farmers will take out even more money and capital input loans with high interest rates, as is the current situation across the countryside. Farm debt, an increasingly common yet little understood problem in Myanmar’s countryside, could very well then become even more catastrophic for farming households who are unaccustomed to running capital-intensive farm operations and managing large loans. But these small-time farmers are clearly not the point of entry for the country’s emerging agribusiness frontier, even if ‘smallholders’ are trumped as the development intervention target. If the logic of the land laws and agro-industrial smallholder development logic is allowed to run its course even over the middle-term, then the less efficient land users (i.e., rural smallholder farmers) will sell their land and become wage laborers as a growing landed elite continue to accrue large agricultural holdings to feed the agro-industrial complex.

Biting realities

Riding along the new yet poorly constructed road connecting the country’s commercial center in Yangon to the political center in Naypyitaw helps better understand the government’s true intentions for rural farm development, where past land concessions that have emptied the landscape of productive household labor can be viewed. International-financed, Myanmar government-backed agro-industrial development projects are beginning to dot the sides of the road leading to the former Senior Generals’ national capital. Modern, large-scale, capital-intensive agro-industrial production and processing plants are being built under the watchful eye of the former regional military commander and now current agriculture minister, despite temporary suspension following an alleged corruption scandal. Landless wage laborers work on the industrial road-side demonstration plantations, with green government signs proclaiming the hybrid high-yielding seed varieties as a mark of modern development.

This type of military-state-led rural development has long been cultivated as the norm in Myanmar’s lowland Bama areas, where patronizing ‘big people’ demonstrate their benevolence to their poor patrons in need. Former high-level military officials-cum-statesmen have shown their true intentions for continuing to demand status quo rural development approaches that plays into the hands of the military-state and their favored businessmen. But with the recent opening up of political space and farmers’ newly-gained confidence in challenging normative forms of top-down development, on a few telling occasions military leaders-turned-ministers lost their patience with defiant farmers and were caught on film screaming obscenities at poor farmer recipients who were questioning the so-called benevolent aid.3

Western governments, development aid industry and IFIs are dumping billions of dollars, countless experts, and legal advice in order to inject a heavy dose of neoliberal economic reform to push aside the Myanmar state to open new channels of immense private capital accumulation and political influence. The theatre being played out between the Myanmar government officials and western-aligned governments and development industry has been made into a rather exclusive club. The legal and financial landscape which has been delivered by a new alliance among military officials, cronies, and western governments/development aid industry has already been decided. Myanmar citizens have been denied decision making power over their own destiny, which will be especially tragic for the majority rural farming population. Poor farmers across the country are demanding, however, that their voices be heard to articulate alternative possibilities for rural livelihoods and forms of national development. But their collective struggle against ‘development from beyond’ is not visible to governments and the development industry because they are too busy supposedly saving farmers from economic poverty.

Show 3 footnotes

  1.  New Light of Myanmar, “President U Thein Sein delivers inaugural address to Pyidaungsu Hluttaw”, 31 March 2011; U Myint, 2011 Reducing Poverty in Myanmar: the Way Forward. Paper presented at the Workshop on Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation; Myanmar Times, “Govt meets activists at land conference”, 3–9 December 2012.
  2. Myanmar Times. “US to focus agriculture support on smallholders.” 3-9 March 2014.
  3. Aung Zaw. “All the President’s Foul-Mouthed Men.” The Irrawaddy, 5 February 2014.
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