In countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, tens of thousands face eviction with few tools to fight back
Residents of a village in Hanoi's outskirts took 38 officials and policemen hostage recently in protest against what they claimed was the illegal seizure of their land by a telecommunications firm owned by the military.
The stand-off riveted the nation, and also highlighted the persistence of land disputes in a region where rapid development is pitting large commercial interests against longstanding communities.
In countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, where weak legal systems are often accompanied by land tenures that are insecure, or difficult to obtain, tens of thousands stand to be evicted from their homes and farmland with little compensation and sometimes few other ways to make a living.
Myanmar's new government was swamped by farmland seizure complaints since it took power last year. In less than five months, its Parliament received 2,000 new complaints, adding to more than 6,000 outstanding cases, reported The Irrawaddy journal last year.
In a similar vein, 98 per cent of the complaints received by the Vietnamese Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in 2014 were related to land disputes.
A major source of land disputes in Vietnam is the acquisition and subsequent conversion of household farmland to commercial property.
Existing residents argue that they are compensated below the market rate. While legal changes in 2013 improved the transparency of the land acquisition process, it does not clearly define the circumstances under which land can be expropriated for "public interest".
Affected residents continue to struggle with scant information.
In Vietnam's north-eastern Bac Giang province, Mr Nguyen Van Thai's family rice fields will soon be acquired to make way for a road and residential development.
"The people were not properly informed," the 39-year-old textile company employee told The Straits Times over the phone. "Officials said every plan, notice and support plan was sent to the commune, but we got only two pieces of paper notice stuck on our notice board."
In Cambodia, many of the evictions in the past decade were caused by economic land concessions granted to domestic and foreign investors. A moratorium on such concessions in 2012 did not stop the number of evictees from rising.
According to the International Federation for Human Rights, more than 60,000 people were affected by evictions between 2014 and 2015 alone. Last year, Cambodia's Ministry of Land Management set up a working group to speed up the resolution of land disputes, and maintained that it had brought that figure from 7,000 down to 800, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Some of the hardest-hit communities in the region are farmers practising shifting cultivation, where plots of agricultural land are periodically left alone to regain their fertility. This land is routinely seized for use by well-connected companies, leaving the farmers with plots too small to feed their families. In Myanmar's Kayin state by the border with Thailand, this has prompted farmers to send their children to Thailand in search of work, noted a report by Human Rights Watch last year.
In Myanmar, most of the land seizures over the past two decades were carried out by military officers and their cronies while the country was under military rule, say land rights activists. Yet even with a new civilian government which has promised to resolve land disputes, there is no guarantee that displaced farmers will get help.
This is because key portfolios like defence and home affairs remain in military hands, and that key agencies dealing with land issues have a heavy military presence.
"The same military-appointed officials arbitrating land disputes are also responsible for land acquisition. Courts lack independence too, so there is no access to justice when human rights violations occur," Mr Sean Bain, a legal consultant with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), told The Straits Times.
In the western state of Rakhine, concerns over illegal land acquisition are one of the factors holding up plans for the Kyaukphyu special economic zone (SEZ), which may displace some 20,000 people. Locals are sceptical that displaced farmers would be able to get better jobs at the SEZ, given that many are fisherman and poorly educated.
"They need to show us a better local employment plan, or it would be hard for locals to allow this project here," said Mr Tun Kyi, a land activist from the Kyaukphyu Rural Development Association.
An ICJ report published in February warned that the ongoing land acquisition process in Kyaukphyu has been unlawful.
Government officials reportedly said that only residents with formal land tenure would be compensated. Yet, some residents in the SEZ have been unable to register their land, it said. This means they may not get anything if they are forced to leave their land.
ICJ's Mr Bain told The Straits Times: "The Kyaukphyu situation reflects what is happening across the country."
PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE