Monday, October 5, 2015

Land-grab communities hope for election savior

October 1, Myanmar Times

Daw Naw Kapaw Lay La, 55, clasps her hands together and gazes longingly out at the green forest in front of her, before closing her eyes.

The ethnic Kayin woman, from Thein Byin village in Tanintharyi township, has walked to the hilltop overlooking the valley to pray together with other residents of the village for the return of their land.

She says she lost 100 acres to a palm oil plantation project made possible by the signing of a ceasefire between the government and Karen National Union in January 2012.

“I’m also praying not to lose any more of my land,” she says.

Daw Naw Kapaw Lay La said she was too afraid to cultivate the land as long as the conflict between the government and the KNU went on. “But then when peace came, the government and the KNU agreed to hand over my land to a giant company,” she said.

That giant company is Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation, a US$36 million Malaysian-Myanmar joint venture that received Myanmar Investment Commission approval in 2011 to use more than 40,000 acres for the palm oil project.

The Myanmar partner for the project is Daw Mya Thidar Sway Tin, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, is also a director of Pioneer Services International, which runs Bahosi Hospital, and managing director of Stark Industries, which is involved in logging and tin mining in Tanintharyi Region.

So far the company has planted 2680 acres, but local civil society group Khine Myal Thitsar says more than 6000 acres have been taken since 2011 without compensation.

There have also been accusations that the company is using the concession to fell valuable stands of hardwood, but company officials deny this.

Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation manager U Aung Min Thu said that the company had no permission for logging but had cut trees for workers’ houses and to clear land for planting.

“It is a misunderstanding with residents,” he said. “We did not log. We were just planting.”

As the election approaches, the residents of Thein Byin and adjoining villages affected by the rubber project are looking for a saviour.

“I will vote for anyone who supports our rights,” said Daw Naw Di Warr from Thein Byin, which is about four hours’ drive from Myeik along a dirt road.

But none of the parties in the area will offer more than a token commitment to help them, said resident Ko Saw Aye Tun, 37.

Ko Aung Thu Ya, deputy leader of the National League for Democracy in Tanintharyi, said the land-grabbing issue was difficult to resolve because the villagers lacked documentation proving their right to the property.

“I can’t promise to resolve this. But we will do our best to ensure that indigenous rights are respected,” he said.

The party’s Amyotha Hluttaw candidate for the area, U Maung Soe, acknowledged the importance of the land-grab issue but said the NLD could not promise to resolve it because the matter was “complicated” by the involvement of the KNU in deals with the government.

U Saw Franky, a leader of Thar Ya Bwin village tract, which includes Thein Byin, Baw Sa Nwin, Swal Chung and Kawatt, said residents had “totally” lost their indigenous rights since the ceasefire was signed. “Residents here are looking for someone who can stand up for them,” he said, adding that all villages in the area had been affected.

In the event, many of them may not even vote. The Myeik district election commission says there are 165 villages in Tanintharyi township and 60,000 voters, most of them ethnic Kayin. But the area is so remote that in some cases there is only one polling station for three scattered and roadless villages.

Parties have barely begun campaigning, which would have to be carried out on foot or by motorbike, said U Hlaing Bwar, deputy director of the district commission.

Residents in some villagers would have to come into Tanintharyi town to vote at the 10 polling stations there, he said.

However, most have little idea if they are on the electoral roll.

Amyotha Hluttaw representative U Maung Soe said the NLD, which has not started campaigning in the region, also feared many voters were not registered. “Polling stations in the countryside are very few and far between,” he said. “This will also reduce the number of voters.”

While the impact of the land confiscation on the result of the election in Tanintharyi is unclear, it could prove more decisive in future polls, particularly if the plantation is expanded to the full 40,000 acres. The KNU harbours ambitions of transforming into a political party but area residents say the group’s support for the rubber plantation has shaken their trust in it.

“No organisation, including the KNU, has stood up for local people whose lands were grabbed here,” said Ko Aung Kyaw Moe, joint secretary of local civil society group Khine Myal Thitsar. “There’s been no solution at all yet.”

The KNU declined to comment when contacted on September 29. However, it was involved in a dispute over the project in March, with Eleven Media reporting that Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation submitted a complaint letter to the Tanintharyi Region government alleging that the KNU had demanded 30 percent of the profits from the project.

However, the KNU rejected the allegations, saying it had instead asked the company to pause the project because of disputes with area residents.

Ko Aung Naing Oo, an 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist in Myeik, said the palm oil project is in a KNU-controlled area and so could only have gone ahead with KNU approval.

“When I met KNU officials to discuss this land grabbing, they replied that the project is in line with KNU policy,” he said.