Theater of Cruelty

"The Lady" and the game about the Earth


Will Aung San Suu Kyi and the new government be able to involve the people in fulfilling the promise of equitable distribution of natural resources?
There are new times in Myanmar. The first democratically elected government since the 1950 figure will take over from 1. April this year. In November 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary elections with a majority so large that the party gained the majority in parliament despite the military automatically holding 25 percent of seats under the Constitution.

It is a new start, but it's not glossy sheets. After over 50 years of military dictatorship and mismanagement, only partially corrected by reforms over the past five years, the starting point for Aung San Suu Kyi and her government is characterized by, among other things, a shaky economy, ongoing war actions in parts of the country and strong economic actors is not particularly concerned about "responsible business". Land rights and a growing scope of so-called land robberies have become an increasing challenge in the country. This is one of many issues that the new government is expected to address. The fight for natural resources is intensifying, both in areas controlled by the ethnic, armed groups and areas traditionally controlled by the central government. Controversial land laws combined with massive investments from powerful economic players make it safe to predict that we will see a growing tension in land issues in Myanmar in the future.
The challenges are compounded by the fact that very many of the newly elected MPs from the NLD have little political experience and no experience of being MPs for a government party. It will be hard to go from being a democracy movement in opposition to a government party that has to run real politics, with such a starting point.

During Over the past three years, several land rights laws have been passed. Much of the process around these legislative changes has taken place behind closed doors. According to the Transnational Institute, which has done a lot of research on land rights in Myanmar, these laws have "changed the legal basis for land use rights" and "established a legally sanctioned market for the purchase and sale of land that aims to encourage increased investment, domestic and foreign, in countries ”.
In particular, two laws, both adopted in 2012, have changed how land and land ownership in Myanmar are managed. One is "The Farmland Law" which enables the purchase, sale and other transfer of land with written user rights. This is despite the fact that large parts of those who have actually driven the land until it is sold, have either never had such written user rights documents and / or have encountered major challenges when trying to obtain such documents. The second law is "The Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law". This states that any country not formally registered with the government can be "reallocated" to investors, both foreign and Myanmar investors.

AFP PHOTO ANDREAS SOLARO 2013: Suu Kyi. in Yangon: © Truls Lie
AFP PHOTO ANDREAS SOLARO 2013: Suu Kyi. in Yangon: © Truls Lie

none of these The laws take into account a historical and current situation where residents and communities have been considered to have a right to operate agriculture, forestry and fisheries on the basis of some form of public right. With these two laws, a number of farmers who have been using the land for generations have now suddenly been defined as "occupants" of the land they run.
The land question is also largely a question of what lies beneath the earth itself: oil, gas, minerals and precious stones. Since 2012, there has been a massive increase in investments in the utilization of various natural resources in Myanmar. In the 2014-15 financial year, the sum of foreign investment amounted to around USD 8 billion or NOK 70 billion, which is almost double the previous year. The oil and gas sector alone accounted for over $ 3 billion, or NOK 27 billion, of this.
In recent years, the government of Myanmar has had a dialogue with non-governmental organizations and has partly listened to their advice on how the authorities should be able to regulate sectors such as oil, gas, mining and hydropower. In this dialogue, the question of land rights has emerged as one of the most important for these national organizations.
Other natural resources in the country are also lucrative. In October 2015, the organization Global Witness published a report on the jade industry in Myanmar. This first comprehensive review of the large industry, where most of the green stone is sold to China, showed that the industry has a total revenue of around $ 31 billion – around NOK 280 billion – in 2014 alone. This corresponds to almost half the gross domestic product of Myanmar. This does not mean that the country's inhabitants benefit from the income. Only a minimal portion of this money, if anything, goes into the state budget like taxes or other taxes.

It is not optional central authorities and domestic and foreign investors who are now making plans to monetize natural resources and land. Several of the ethnic, armed groups control areas with great natural resource riches, and already run mining, and there are plans for several major hydropower projects. With the ongoing peace process, several of the groups are making plans for new projects. If this generates income that benefits the people, it can of course be a positive step. The fear is that residents will largely only notice these projects by forcing them to move and lose the right to operate the land they have been running for generations.
In its political program before the November elections last year, the NLD promised to "work to ensure a fair distribution across the country of the proceeds from natural resource extraction". How this is to be implemented is less important.
So far, Aung San Suu Kyi has focused on building relationships with the military and the outgoing government. In 1990, Suu Kyi and the NLD experienced winning an election and not being able to take power. "The Lady", as she is often called, has probably done well to make sure she has the military and others with power on her side. After safeguarding the necessary alliance building with the old rulers, a still unanswered question will be what is the NLD's strategy for relationship building with those who have brought them to where they are today, namely the people. This uncertainty also applies to NLD's and the new government's relationship with the part of civil society working in the area of ​​land rights. How Aung San Suu Kyi and the new government will involve organizations, farmers and scientists in trying to fulfill the law on equitable distribution of natural resources revenue is a question many here are excited to hear the answer to.

In the fields land rights and natural resource management, activists and organizational people in Myanmar have created several large, heavy networks that include farmers, researchers, organizational people and activists. The new government will do well to listen to these. One of the networks, Land In Our Hands, writes in a 2015 report: “The Earth is for those who live on it and operate it; for those who depend on it for their livelihood and their identity. Therefore, any 'development initiative' and 'investment' that is not carried out in accordance with this basic principle must be stopped or terminated. All mechanisms for settling disputes over land rights must also have this basic principle as a starting point ”. The balance between attracting investors on the one hand and at the same time fulfilling people's expectations that they will have the right to the land on which they live and operate can be challenging for "The Lady" in the years to come.
Former Country Director for Norwegian People's Aid in Myanmar. Email:

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