Corrupt “land grabs” imperil democracy in Burma

by John Morrell | Center for International Private Enterprise
Tuesday, 12 August 2014 11:47 GMT

Petitioners shout for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to come out from her house in Yangon to help settle land disputes. Picture April 5, 2014, REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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Corruption, land grabs, religious extremism and resulting lack of law and order could imperil democracy

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to own property [and] no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” In Burma, a country in the early stages of its emergence from a half century of military rule and central economic planning, property rights violations could threaten democracy itself.

Burma lacks many institutions necessary for a market-oriented democracy, such as a reliable court system, dependable electricity, and accessible financial services. The country’s physical infrastructure is also woefully inadequate. Paramount among these issues is rampant corruption and terrible public governance – issues that manifest in the “land-grabbing epidemic” which is sparking protest and civic unrest.

Corrupt and predatory land-grabs by the government, military, and/or crony business interests affiliated with both, first emerged when international sanctions were imposed after the 1988 crackdown. Starved of capital, the military seized large tracts of land and extorted rent from the farmers who lived there. In some cases, entire communities were evicted from their homes to make way for the establishment of agro-industrial plantations, military settlements, and large industrial complexes.

Today, the expectation of increased foreign direct investment in Burma is driving up the value of real estate and other forms of property, leading to more and more land seizures and increased opportunities for corruption. Explanations and legal justifications for the evictions are sometimes provided - along with varying levels of compensation - but more often neither is given. Greater media freedom is shedding light on this disturbing trend and the increasingly frequent protests triggered by these violations. Land grabs are also exacerbating the violent conflicts in Burma’s ethnic states.

For democracy to take hold in Burma, more will be required than just the ability to vote. All segments of society need to see how their ability to vote is accompanied by improved rule of law, respect for human rights, and better public governance. In short, people need to see how democracy delivers for them.

The political reforms undertaken by the Burmese government have been remarkable. Not only have most political prisoners been freed and Aung San Suu Kyi been allowed to win a seat in parliament, but the kyat is now more freely traded than many other Southeast Asian currencies, independent daily newspapers abound, and international donors and non-governmental organizations are actively engaged with the country’s long smothered (but now growing) civil society.

Significant pieces of legislation have been passed such as the Foreign Investment Law, the Labor Organizations Law, and the Peaceful Demonstration and Gathering Law. Of course, these reforms are far from perfect, but one need only visit Rangoon today and see the throngs of people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Aung San Suu Kyi to witness how far Burma has come in a short time. But as property rights are a core component of rule of law, they must be strengthened for the country’s democratic transition to be sustainable.

Many civil society actors in Burma are working on the issue of land grabs, with some providing legal aid to farmers while others convene small conferences that give farmers a platform to air their grievances. Others are working on the broader issue of anti-corruption. The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) is working to coordinate these disparate actors into a viable coalition capable of policy advocacy – advocacy targeted at the legislative and regulatory reforms needed to underpin strong property rights.

If the introduction of democracy is accompanied by an explosion of corruption, land grabs, and property rights violations, not to mention the alarming emergence of violent religious extremism, the resulting lack of law and order could imperil democracy itself.

What stake will the growing number of displaced and aggrieved farmers have in a democratic future?