The Great Southeast Asian Land Grab
Conflict over land tenure in Southeast Asia’s rural areas has emerged as a key issue for the region. To achieve goals such as economic development and poverty reduction in rural areas, governments in the region have pursued policies to attract investment from large corporate entities both domestically and internationally, to undertake projects on “vacant” and “unused” land that promise to bolster the economy and create jobs.
Normally these projects involve large-scale plantations for the cultivation and processing of key agricultural commodities for export abroad, but they also include mines, hydroelectric dams, special economic zones, tourist resorts and other projects. Conflict emerges when the “vacant” and “unused” land is in reality informally occupied by smallholder subsistence farmers who must be relocated so that the land can be improved for large-scale commercial use. Often the process of relocation is violent as the farmers resist relocation and are forcibly removed by agents for the investors.
Although the specific context varies from country to country and perhaps even case-by-case, the common features throughout the region are an inadequate legal framework within each country dealing with land ownership and occupancy, the dilemma between customary land occupancy and formal land ownership, and market forces driving policies in support of large agribusiness and other major development projects on these lands.
Nowhere is the conflict between farmers and corporate interests over land in Southeast Asia more visible than in Cambodia, where one NGO estimates that since 2003 up to 400,000 rural people have been affected by the acquisition of land, mostly for agribusiness.
Many trace this back to the abolition of private ownership under the Khmer Rouge, but in fact Cambodia has never had a strong tradition of land ownership in rural areas. Instead it has a very long tradition of informal or “customary ownership,” where farmers subsist off of small plots of land with no proof of legal ownership. This arrangement is common even today, although it is being challenged by the proliferation of formally recognized economic land concessions.
Conflict occurs when farmers who depend on the land to make a living are deprived of it because they have no proof of ownership to challenge the claim of investors who have been tacitly sanctioned by the government. The legal system does not protect the farmers because it is self-contradictory and unevenly enforced. On the one hand, farmers who have occupied their plots for five or more years have the right to apply for legal ownership of it; but on the other hand if they occupy (as most do) what is categorized as “State private land” they are squatters and can be legally removed. None of this matters, however, since the judiciary in Cambodia has consistently ruled in favor of investors or has taken no action at all.
One very visible example is a land dispute between local farmers and large corporate investors that has been ongoing since 2006, in which nearly 20,000 hectares was acquired by investors to establish two sugar cane plantations sitting side by side in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province. In this case, more than 200 families had the land they subsist on taken away, in many cases by force, to be enclosed within the plantations. No mechanism in Koh Kong province was in place to grant private ownership for smallholder farmers, the affected communities were never aware their land was in danger of being seized by the investors before the actual seizure took place, and to make matters worse the investors did not follow the prescribed legal process for acquiring the land.
Unfortunately, the legal system has been completely ineffective and until recently the government was evasive when dealing with such issues. Around the time of the 2012 commune elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a halt on any additional land concessions and followed it up with an ad hoc land titling scheme aimed at pleasing rural constituents by giving them legal tenureship of their land, presumably in exchange for political support.
Myanmar is a different case but is facing the same basic problem. Like Cambodia, Myanmar’s population is overwhelmingly rural. Unlike Cambodia, however, at least certain regions have relatively well developed practices for land tenureship that have until recently been reasonably well integrated into the formal legal structure. Moreover, Myanmar is much more ethnically diverse and has been embroiled in ethnic conflict for more than sixty years now. These differences further complicate the dilemma between subsistence farmers and agribusiness.
Since initiating a civilian administration in March 2011 under President Thein Sein, the government of Myanmar has sought to attract investment to help boost its economy. Part of this effort has involved new regulations on land ownership and investment, such as the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law and the Foreign Investment Law, which critics claim favor large investors at the expense of Myanmar’s rural subsistence farmers. These legal actions alter if not distort the existing legal framework and echo a similar trend to Cambodia, where there has been a recent upsurge in industrial-scale rural land acquisitions that has been underway since at least the mid-2000s.
One consequence has been more frequent conflict between local farmers being made landless and the investors and governments taking away their land. A notable example of this is the Chinese-owned Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing. The mine confiscated 3,000 hectares of land and caused the forced relocation of 200 families. When local community members attempted to protest, violence followed and at least 70 people were hurt. In an unexpected twist, despite the heavy handed and undemocratic nature of the acquisition, democratic activist and political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited the area in March 2013 to convince villagers to accept the compensation offered by the company, even though it was regarded as less than a fair offer.
Throughout Southeast Asia there are numerous other examples of social conflict brought on by the expropriation of rural lands at the expense of their inhabitants for the benefit of large investors. These conflicts transcend boundaries, culture and legal apparatus and represent a common challenge that governments across ASEAN need to address more effectively. Speaking with The Diplomat, Professor Apiwat Ratanawaraha of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, who specializes in land issues, noted that "Extreme economic and social inequality is further exacerbated by land insecurity, which in turn affects political stability and security. A number of farmers' demonstrations in Southeast Asia are deep-rooted in land insecurity.”
The implications of the current dilemma of land tenancy for Southeast Asia’s leaders are serious. Although it seems unlikely that a rural-based revolution will emerge to overthrow a government anywhere soon, the issue will continue to fester as a source of societal tension, as the well-connected continue to prosper and the rural poor become more impoverished. Some would expect that the newly landless will move to the cities and take up new livelihoods, but as the case of the sugar cane plantation in Koh Kong shows there are many others who will remain where they, even if landless.
For now, though, the most tangible implication is the damage done to government credibility, as seen in the recent national elections in Cambodia. Land grabbing has been at the forefront of public debate in Cambodia for years now and it appears that the ruling party has begun to be held accountable for it, at least to some degree. The failure to address the dilemma between the rural citizenry and large investors from Phnom Penh or abroad effectively or justly is at least one explanation for the Cambodian People’s Party relatively poor showing at the polls in July.
Following her less than courageous stand at the Letpadaung copper mine Aung San Suu Kyi should take note.