RANGOON — Authorities in a town slated for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in southern Burma have confiscated paddy fields ready for harvest to make way for civilian housing quarters, according to a local activist group.
An activist from Dawei Human Rights Watch said a nearly 200-strong team led by district and township administrators showed up on Sunday morning at the rice plots in the Sanchi quarter of western Dawei Township, where they proceeded to fence off 14 acres of rice paddies. The land grab evicted more than 20 people working and living out on the fields.
Dawei is the capital of Burma’s southernmost Tenasserim Division. It is also the site of a 250-square-kilomter (97-square-mile) Dawei SEZ, which the Burmese and Thai governments hope to transform into Southeast Asia’s largest industrial complex.
The watchdog’s Than Win, who witnessed Sunday’s land confiscation, told The Irrawaddy that authorities ordered the farmers to leave the area within 30 minutes.
“They said any assembly of more than five farmers would be punished,” he said, adding that authorities claimed the land had already been confiscated in the 1990s, but was only now being fenced in by the government.
“If it were unused land, I wouldn’t feel that bad, but the rice is now ready for this year’s harvest,” said Tun Tun Win, one of the land claimants whose four acres of farmland was included in the Sunday land grab.
Than Win said the latest seizure is part of more than 300 acres of farmland in Dawei Township confiscated by the former military regime. Government office buildings and other privately owned structures have been built on about 100 of the 300 acres. The state has offered compensation to 64 farmers who owned the 300 acres, but nearly all of them have rejected an offer to relocate their land holdings to new plots, with the farmers contending that the land is not suitable for growing rice.
Though their lands lie outside of the area designated for the Dawei SEZ, which includes a deep-sea port project, Than Win said the dispossessed farmers were still suffering the consequences of the US$50 billion project, sited 18 miles away from them.
“You could say today’s incident is one jump ahead of other moves as more development projects will be rushing into the area thanks to the deep-sea port project,” he said, adding that the rice paddies grabbed on Sunday were situated nearly one mile from the Dawei town center.
Burma and Thailand signed an agreement to develop a deep-sea port and SEZ at Dawei in 2010. The original developer, Italian-Thai Development, stepped back from the project after struggling to win financial backing. The Burma and Thai governments have since taken over and are attempting to bring Japan into the project, the first phase of which is expected to cost around $10 billion.
But the project is now under fire from human rights groups and local residents who are demanding a suspension of work at the SEZ site, claiming promised compensation has not been paid and work carried out so far has damaged agricultural land.
Tun Tun Win said his family had farmed the land for generations, and added that he learned only last year of the military’s claim that it had officially seized his land in the 1990s.
“When I went out to pay annual tax for my land as I have in previous years, the official no longer accepted it and I was told my land has been seized since the 1990s.”
He explained that when he was first informed of the military’s land claim, no compensation proposal was presented, but later authorities said they could offer a plot of 40 feet by 60 feet for every three acres of farmland confiscated. One square acre is approximately 209 feet by 209 feet.
Tun Tun Win said he and other farmers refused to accept the compensation offer.
“It’s a rip-off,” he said. “The location of the land they offered is quite far away and unfertile. Our lands are near the town center.”
Kyaw Swe, chairman of the Dawei District administration, confirmed the Sunday confiscation and the assertion that the land had technically been government property since the 1990s. He said the land fenced in Sunday was formerly owned by five farmers. The government last year compensated three of them with the 40 feet by 60 feet land plots for every three acres of the seized farmland.
“We will also compensate the other two owners, and allow the farmers to harvest,” he said.
Burma is an agricultural country where more than 70 percent of its 60 million people work on farmland. Land grabs were rife throughout the country under the former military dictatorship, and the issue has not abated with the installation of a nominally civilian government in 2011.
Between July 2012 and January 2013, the country’s parliamentary Farmland Investigation Commission received 565 complaints from farmers who alleged that the military had forcibly seized 247,077 acres (almost 100,000 hectares) of land, mostly in Irrawaddy Division, central Burma and some ethnic regions.
Even the country’s President Thein Sein acknowledged during a July speech in London that the issue of land-grabbing was one of Burma’s most important challenges, saying “land ownership issues … are extremely complex,” and vowing to develop “clear, fair and open land policies.”
A few days after the president’s speech, Burma’s defense minister said the military had reviewed half of all complaints of land-grabbing by its units, but had thus far decided to return only a fraction of all farmland forcibly seized during the junta era.
Defense Minister Lt-Gen Wai Lwin told Parliament that it was impossible, for security reasons, to give back lands that were located close to some areas used by the military, such as army training grounds and buildings, and land with ongoing development projects on it.
“So the farmers need to stop staging protests or their fight to win back their lands,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, Than Win of Dawei Human Rights Watch and farmers were preparing to seek permission from local authorities to protest Sunday’s land grab and campaign for decent compensation.
“I have tried for the permissions two times in the past,” he said. “But they never allowed us.”
Tun Tun Win said the affected farmers were asking that the government give them the market rate for their lands.
“If they can’t give the price we demand, just give back our land and allow us to officially register those lands,” he said.
The Irrawaddy’s San Yamin Aung contributed reporting.