Palm oil fruits on a truck. Photo: Reuters/Samsul Said
Palm oil fruits on a truck. Photo: Reuters/Samsul Said

Massive palm oil projects are being built on grabbed land that is causing severe social and environmental damage, said the Green Desert report released this week by affected locals and activists.

The report highlights the accelerating pace of land grabs in Myanmar’s Tenasserim Division since the country opened up under the semi-civilian government of then president Thein Sein in 2011.

One striking example is that of the Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation, a joint venture mainly owned by a Malaysian firm. The 38,900 acres of the plantation established in 2011 belonged to four Karen villages and destroyed the livelihoods and agricultural activities of 4,500 people. After half a century of military rule and ethnic conflict, locals did not enjoy too much respite before their land, previously seized by the military, was taken over for new agribusiness projects.

In Myanmar, land ownership is an intricate issue, as most farmers in the country do not hold any property deeds.

According to laws enacted under the previous government, many traditionally cultivated lands can be seized, as they are legally regarded as vacant. “Since 2011, the [joint-venture] company has cleared more than 6,000 acres, including the betel nut and cashew orchards that villagers depend on for their livelihoods,” the report says.

While locals complaint about the lack of proper compensations, water in the area has been polluted by pesticides and villagers suffers from skin diseases.

According to the report, no environmental impact assessment was undertaken but a permit was granted by the Investment Commission. The Thein Sein government development policy was always said to focus on large-scale agriculture backed by foreign investment, a choice that made “legal” land grabs even more frequent in recent years.

An economic elite of crony companies run by former military personnel and well-connected companies are the main drivers behind the phenomenon.

Neighbors start talks on Rohingya exodus

Negotiations began last Wednesday between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the plight of the Rohingya minority, with 65,000 of them having already reached Bangladesh since attacks on border posts in October. Each country blames each other, as they both see the Rohingya minority as “the other’s problem,” The Irrawaddy reports.

More than 500,000 Rohingyas live in Bangladesh, where they are perceived as Myanmar Muslims. On the other hand, the Myanmar military has had a long history of persecuting this minority, as thousands began fleeing the country as early as the 1980s.

Rohingya refugees protest against what organisers say is the crackdown on ethnic Rohingyas in Myanmar. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

According to the Irrawaddy, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the Myanmar Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs U Kyaw Tin that Myanmar must accept back all “Myanmar nationals” in Bangladesh.

The two countries are expected to discuss the introduction of a possible  identification and verification process before repatriation to Myanmar.

Myanmar is certainly not eager to see the Rohingya return, as the stateless minority are denied citizenship and branded as illegal immigrants by a majority of Buddhists in the country.

Military ties strong in fourth telecoms operator

After State owned MPT, Norwegian firm Telenor and Qatari Ooredoo in 2013, a fourth operator has been granted a license by the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

Myanmar National Tele and Communications (MNTC) is a joint venture between Vietnam military-owned Viettel and Myanmar military-owned MEC. A tie-up proving the ex-junta elites are not yet willing to let go of their share of a dynamic market.

After three years of rapid growth, demand is now slowing, as most people willing to buy a sim card already have one. MNTC will join a market where competition will now start to focus on quality rather than quantity.

For the new operator, which will only launch services in 2018, main challenges will be to reach remote and rural areas. Wide parts of the country in ethnic areas of upper Myanmar remain hugely disconnected from the outside world.

“Our company is the last one to enter the market and almost everyone has SIM cards,” U Zaw Min Oo, MNTC chief external relations, said in the Myanmar Times. “But we will do our best in this market, and we will try to ensure our communication networks reaches 95% of the population.”

New company law on track

The Myanmar Companies Law that will replace the outdated Myanmar Companies Act from 1914 went to Parliament this week after it was approved by a government cabinet earlier this month.

The law is aimed at simplifying requirements for small and family-owned businesses. It will also allow foreign investors to hold shares in Myanmar companies without branding them as foreign-owned companies except if the ratio ownership exceeds 35%.

Foreigners will also be allowed to buy shares on the Yangon Stock Exchange, a necessity according to U Ye Min Aung, managing director of Myanmar Agribusiness Public Corporation who said in the Myanmar Times, “Trading is only made by the domestic market, and in order to boost trading it is necessary to allow foreigners with higher purchasing power to trade.”