Blog / Oct. 10, 2014

Despite prolific land grabbing, Myanmar assures the UN that human rights abuses are no longer an issue

On my way to a meeting in downtown Yangon in July, I was met by a sea of protesters moving in the opposite direction.  Wearing matching red t-shirts, over 200 families have been camping outside Yangon City Hall since March to demonstrate against the military’s seizure of land in the east of the city.

Six months later, with the protesters still sitting strong, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, took to the podium at last week’s UN General Assembly in New York, calling for his country to be removed from the UN Human Rights Council agenda.  He claimed that all major concerns related to human rights had been addressed since Myanmar emerged from half a century of military dictatorship in 2010.

This is a pretty implausible statement, given the continued abuses committed by Myanmar’s government against its people over the past four years.  The international community should be doing more, not less, to address this.

Myanmar human rights abuse

Many of Myanmar’s human rights violations are linked to the government’s persistent habit of grabbing land from the communities who live on it, and cracking down on any protest that results. Land confiscations for natural resources like rubber, timber and copper have been on the rise since the late 2000s. By 2013, approximately 5.2 million acres of land – an area approximately a third of the size of Sri Lanka – had been allocated to agribusiness concessions alone. Myanmar’s latest wave of land grabbing has increased poverty, landlessness and forest loss, leaving farmers struggling to feed their families.

One of the most high profile of these cases has been the construction of the Letpadaung copper mine in the northwest of the country – a joint venture between Chinese company Wanbao and the military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. In November 2012, Myanmar’s authorities reportedly used white phosphorus – a chemical that causes severe burns and can kill – to disperse protests against the project, which threatened to make 26,000 people homeless.

In August this year, police allegedly beat up and shot farmers gathered in Singu in Mandalay to protest against land that was confiscated by the Burmese military two decades ago, and handed to the CEO of the Chinese-owned Great Wall Company, U Tin Maung. A 60-year lease on the illegally occupied land was granted by the military to the company for the establishment of sugarcane plantations. Affected farmers have repeatedly written letters of complaint to the relevant government committees but have never received a response. The land has yet to be returned or compensated, despite legal requirements to do so.

Stories like these are not uncommon, so much so that MPs have called on government ministries a number of times to address issues around land rights and use, and to return grabbed land. Less than a quarter of around 2,700 complaints sent to the Defence Ministry – which deals with land claimed to be owned by the military – have been addressed so far, and only 300 out of 6,559 complaints lodged with state and regional governments have been settled.  A Burmese civil society coalition recently slammed Myanmar’s Human Rights Commission for not having successfully investigated a single case submitted, many of which relate to land grabs.

With some sanctions on Myanmar now suspended, and the country opening up to foreign investors for the first time, land is going to come under increasing pressure. Some steps are being taken to help mitigate related abuses: under new requirements introduced in 2013, for example, all US businesses investing over US$500,000 in Myanmar must report annually on how they are addressing human rights, labour, corruption, and environmental risks associated with their projects or supply chains, and disclose any arrangements they make to acquire land. But these safeguards can do little in the face of weak rule of law, a compromised judicial system, and entrenched corruption.

It would be nothing short of disastrous for the UN to agree to the Foreign Minister’s bewildering attempt to remove Myanmar from the global human rights agenda. International pressure, particularly from the UN, is vital to ensure that Myanmar take genuine steps to clean up its appalling human rights record.