The fight over land in Mingaladon is one of many such battles in Burma. 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.
But not only that. The political change sweeping through Burma 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 the former capital Rangoon to protest the Mingaladon land acquisition by the Zaykabar Company. It was the first legal protest to be held in Burma 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. “They didn’t dare do that kind of thing two years ago,” she said.
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 received no money for the land back in 1997 when the Zaykabar Company began work on a 5,000-acre township, with a large industrial zone, office towers, a mall, some 4,000 residential bungalows and a 21-hole golf course.
Farmers such as Myint Thein could not fight back then as they were not only raging against Zaykabar. The company 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 (US $50 million then) and farmers say they saw none of it.
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.
Burma 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 Burma was at risk of a “land-grabbing epidemic” if the laws are not changed.