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As political reforms unfold in Myanmar, formerly cowed farmers seek redress for lost land

The landscape of Mingaladon township on the northern outskirts of Myanmar's main city tells a story of economic upheaval. Skeletons of factories for a new industrial zone rise from thick green rice paddies local farmers say were seized by one of Myanmar's most powerful companies.

The fight over land in Mingaladon is one of many such battles in Myanmar. Human rights groups say land battles are intensifying because companies tied to the military and business elite are rushing to grab land as the country emerges from five decades of isolation and opens its economy. Not only that. The political change sweeping through Myanmar means farmers and others are challenging land confiscations in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

One Sunday in July, some 200 farmers took to the streets of Yangon, the main city, to protest the Mingaladon land acquisition by the Zaykabar Company. It was the first legal protest to be held in Myanmar since a 1988 uprising against military rule was crushed and came just days after parliament passed a new law allowing peaceful demonstrations. In the past, protesters have been arrested or shot.

Two months after the July protest, dozens of farmers crowded into the shabby, two-story home of a protest leader to sign and thumbprint petitions asking Zaykabar for more money.

"The farmers know their rights and dare to demand their rights," said Htet Htet Oo Wai, a former political prisoner who has joined the fight over Mingaladon. "They didn't dare do that kind of thing two years ago," she said.

One of those farmers, Myint Thein, 56, pointed to a metal shed going up on the 15 acres his family used to tend. He said he got no money for the land back in 1997 when the Zaykabar Company began work on a 5,000-acre township, with a large industrial zone, office towers, a mall, some 4,000 residential bungalows and a 21-hole golf course.

Farmers such as Myint Thein couldn't fight back then. They weren't only ranged against Zaykabar. The company had the backing of the state and was developing the area through a joint venture with the government. Zaykabar paid the government around 14 billion kyat for the land — about $50 million then — and farmers say they saw none of it.

"At the time, you couldn't say anything," Myint Thein said. "We'd been farming for our whole life," he said. "It was like our hands were broken."

Before Myanmar's political reforms began, its military junta exercised unfettered power and in the state-dominated economy the ruling generals had the last word on who owned what. The new government still owns all farmland and while it has made efforts to clarify land use rights it might also have reinforced avenues for small landholders to be dispossessed by the well-connected and powerful.

Myanmar passed two new land laws this year, which have been sharply criticized by human rights groups for the broad power they grant the government to requisition land in the national interest. The Asian Human Rights Commission told the United Nations that Myanmar was at risk of a "land-grabbing epidemic" if the laws aren't changed.

Other countries in Southeast Asia also grapple with land disputes. Cambodia and Vietnam have been plagued by a land-grabbing scourge linked to the powerful. In Vietnam, land seizures are the most common source of conflict between the ruling Communist Party and the Vietnamese people.

Zaykabar got more land for its Mingaladon project in 2010 from farmers who said the acquisition was illegal because the government hadn't authorized it and that they were coerced into accepting too little money for their fields. The company said the allegations aren't true. A Ministry of Construction official backed part of the farmers' account, saying a contract to develop the area has yet to be signed, but the government has given no indication it intends to intervene.

Some 86 farmers who handed over their land in 2010 have joined forces with over 150 of those who say they lost their land in 1997 to fight Zaykabar, in street marches and the media, through petitions to a new land dispute committee, and in court, if necessary.

For now, only a few buildings break Mingaladon's green fields. Boys fish in muddy ditches as workers lay the bricks of high new walls. But Myanmar's rising-star status with international investors has given Zaykabar's slow-burning project new urgency.

The U.S and Europe have lifted most sanctions against Myanmar in response to reformist President Thein Sein's drive to transform the country from a vilified dictatorship to a free-market democracy. Political prisoners have been released and media censorship eased. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament, and the government is appealing to foreign investors for capital and expertise.

All that makes the land in Mingaladon more attractive to investors. Zaykabar, a subsidiary of the National Development Company Group, said after upgrading the industrial zone with electricity, water and roads, it has been selling the land for 20 million to 40 million kyat ($23,500 to $47,000) per acre. The highest prices it fetched are more than 130 times the payments that farmers got for an acre of land in 2010.

Zaykabar and its chairman, Khin Shwe, who is also a member of Parliament for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, are both still subject to individual U.S. sanctions for alleged links to the old military junta. U.S. citizens are barred from doing business with them.

Zaykabar has filed a defamation lawsuit against the self-appointed leader of the farmers, Nay Myo Wai, a round-faced 40-year-old who made his living as an engineer and kerosene smuggler before refashioning himself a politician. His right forearm bears a tattoo of a dragon, etched in ink laced with snake venom when he was a child in the belief it would render him immune to snake bites.

"Whether you sign or not, they will take the land," Nay Myo Wai said. "Farmers felt they couldn't say no."

Zay Thiha, who is Khin Shwe's son and serves as Zaykabar's vice chairman, said the company paid the Ministry of Construction's Department of Human Settlements and Housing Development 3.5 million kyat per acre for land acquired in 1997 and agreed to pay 4.4 million kyat per acre for land acquired in 2010.

An official at the Department of Human Settlements, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with the media, said the department had not yet taken any money for the 2010 land nor signed a contract for the acquisition.

"The company hasn't got the permission to transform farming land," he said.

The official confirmed that Zaykabar paid the government 3.5 million kyat per acre in 1997.

He declined to say whether the government had paid farmers for their land in 1997. Under the country's old land laws, farmers were entitled to little or no compensation for their land, all of which belonged to the government, he said.

Zay Thiha said the government has agreed in principle to the 2010 arrangement and that it is the department's responsibility — not the company's — to get final approval for using the farmland for the industrial zone.

He said his father Khin Shwe, wise to the shifting political winds in Myanmar, went out of this way to help the farmers in 2010, in the run-up to Myanmar's first parliamentary elections in 20 years.

"He was competing in the election, so he didn't want to get a bad name," Zay Thiha said.

Khin Shwe met with around 60 farmers in May 2010, which was six months before the election and Khin Shwe's first bid for public office, and agreed to give them money. Because Zaykabar cannot legally acquire land directly from the farmers, according to Zay Thiha, the company made a "donation" of 300,000 kyat per acre, according to Zay Thiha. He said some farmers were given an additional 300,000 kyat per acre for the rice crop in their fields.

"He didn't want to see farmers lose their land without getting any money, so that's why he gave these charity fees," said Zay Thiha. He said the compensation was above market rates at the time and provided ample capital to buy other farmland.

As evidence that no one was coerced he gave the example of 12 people who he said still haven't agreed to hand over around 100 acres. "We say 'Please' and are very gentle," he said.

Zay Thiha predicts, ambitiously, that the 2,500-acre industrial zone alone could create 1.5 million stable jobs in Southeast Asia's poorest country, but few farmers see a place for themselves or their children in that bright, industrial future.

Kyaw Sein, 62, is the son of farmers and his sons are farmers.

"We can't do anything except farm," he said. He said he agreed to accept 300,000 kyat per acre from Zaykabar in 2010 because he saw what happened to his neighbors in 1997.

"They lost their farms totally and didn't get anything," he said. "Anything is better than nothing."

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Associated Press writer Yadana Htun in Yangon contributed to this report.

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Follow Erika Kinetz on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ekinetz