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Some farmers Myanmar claim their land has been illegally seized by companies with ties to Myanmar's government.
BY ERIKA KINETZ
AP Business Writer
MINGALADON, Myanmar--The landscape of Mingaladon township on the northern outskirts of Myanmar's main city tells a story of economic upheaval. Skeletons of factories for a new industrial zone rise from thick green rice paddies local farmers say were seized by one of Myanmar's most powerful companies.
The fight over land in Mingaladon is one of many such battles in Myanmar. Human rights groups say land battles are intensifying because companies tied to the military and business elite are rushing to grab land as the country emerges from five decades of isolation and opens its economy. And, the political change sweeping through Myanmar means farmers and others are challenging land confiscations in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.
One Sunday in July, some 200 farmers took to the streets of Yangon, the main city, to protest the Mingaladon land acquisition by the Zaykabar Company. It was the first legal protest to be held in Myanmar since a 1988 uprising against military rule was crushed and came just days after a new law allowing peaceful demonstrations was passed by parliament. In the past, protesters have been arrested or shot.
Two months after the July protest, dozens of farmers crowded into the shabby two-story home of a protest leader to sign and thumbprint petitions asking Zaykabar for more money.
"The farmers know their rights and dare to demand their rights," said Htet Htet Oo Wai, a former political prisoner who has joined the fight over Mingaladon.
One of those farmers, Myint Thein, 56, pointed to a metal shed going up on the 15 acres his family used to tend. He said he got no money for the land back in 1997 when Zaykabar began work on a 5,000-acre township, with a large industrial zone, office towers, a mall, 4,000 residential bungalows and a 21-hole golf course.
Farmers such as Myint Thein couldn't fight back then. Zaykabar had the backing of the state and was developing the area through a joint venture with the government. Zaykabar paid the government around 14 billion kyat--about $50 million then--and farmers say they saw none of it.
"At the time, you couldn't say anything," Myint Thein said. "We'd been farming for our whole life. It was like our hands were broken."
Before Myanmar's political reforms began, its military junta exercised unfettered power, and in the state-dominated economy, the ruling generals had the last word on who owned what. The new government still owns all farmland, and while it has made efforts to clarify land use rights, it might also have reinforced avenues for small landholders to be dispossessed by the well-connected and powerful.
Myanmar passed two new land laws this year, which have been sharply criticized by human rights groups for the broad power they grant the government to requisition land in the national interest. The Asian Human Rights Commission told the United Nations that Myanmar was at risk of a "land-grabbing epidemic" if the laws aren't changed.
Zaykabar got more land for its Mingaladon project in 2010 from farmers who said the acquisition was illegal because the government hadn't authorized it and that they were coerced into accepting too little money for their fields. The company said the allegations aren't true. A Ministry of Construction official backed part of the farmers' account, saying a contract to develop the area has yet to be signed, but the government has given no indication it intends to intervene.
Some 86 farmers who handed over their land in 2010 have joined forces with over 150 of those who say they lost their land in 1997 to fight Zaykabar, in street marches and the media, through petitions to a new land dispute committee, and in court, if necessary.
For now, only a few buildings break Mingaladon's green fields. Boys fish in muddy ditches as workers lay the bricks of high new walls. But Myanmar's rising-star status with international investors has given Zaykabar's slow burning project new urgency.
The U.S and Europe have lifted most sanctions against Myanmar in response to reformist president Thein Sein's drive to transform the country from a vilified dictatorship to a free-market democracy. Political prisoners have been released and press censorship eased. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament, and the government is appealing to foreign investors for capital and expertise.
All that makes the land in Mingaladon more attractive to investors. Zaykabar, a subsidiary of the National Development Company Group, said after upgrading the industrial zone with electricity, water and roads, it has been selling the land for 20 million to 40 million kyat ($23,500 to $47,000) per acre.
Zaykabar and its chairman, Khin Shwe, who is also a member of Parliament for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, are both still subject to individual U.S. sanctions for alleged links to the military junta. U.S. citizens are barred from doing business with them.
Zaykabar has filed a defamation lawsuit against the self-appointed leader of the farmers, Nay Myo Wai, a round-faced 40-year-old who made his living as an engineer and kerosene smuggler before refashioning himself a politician. His right forearm bears a tattoo of a dragon, etched in ink laced with snake venom when he was a child in the belief it would render him immune to snake bites.
"Whether you sign or not, they will take the land," Nay Myo Wai said. "Farmers felt they couldn't say no."