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      Forced Evictions as Urban Planning? Traces of Colonial Land Control Practices in Yangon, Myanmar

      State Crime Journal
      Pluto Journals
      Myanmar, Yangon, evictions, land control, urban, property rights


            From 1852 to 1948, the British colonial government developed and relied heavily upon particular land control practices to enact forms of urban planning and population control designed to advance the economic development of Rangoon and maximize revenue for the colonial state. There are three main colonial land control policies with long-standing legacies: the annihilation of pre-conquest property rights, the intentional under-equipping and underservicing of Burman majority or outlying areas, and the use of forced evictions in urban development and city expansion. While these forms of state crime linked to the state organizational goal of land control began in the colonial period, their legacies continue in contemporary Yangon. However, the current social and structural issues in Yangon are not the fault of the British colonial government alone. Subsequent Burmese governments largely continued, borrowed from, or reverted to these state criminal practices at critical junctures to open further space for development, to change the demographic composition of particular areas or simply to control the population. Despite purported ideological differences, successive Burmese regimes have adopted urban planning and housing policies, especially with respect to the urban poor, that vary only slightly from the precedents set by the British colonial administration. Recent actions and pronouncements by the current government suggest that further forced evictions will occur and the National League for Democracy (NLD) will continue to follow colonial precedents in state policies towards forced evictions and the urban poor.


            Author and article information

            State Crime Journal
            Pluto Journals
            1 October 2018
            : 7
            : 2
            : 278-305
            [1 ] King's College London;
            © 2018 International State Crime Initiative

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            Myanmar,Yangon,evictions,land control,urban,property rights


            1. The official English name for the country was changed from “Burma” to “Myanmar” by the military junta in 1989. Due to debates over the legitimacy of the military government and the junta's right to change the name, exile groups and pro-democracy activists as well as the US and UK governments continued to call the country “Burma”. I will use the term “Burma” and “Rangoon” up until 1989, and “Myanmar” and “Yangon” from 1989 onwards.

            2. In 1958, the democratic government invited the military to take control of the government for a period of 2 years leading up to democratic elections in 1960. Following the 1960 elections, the military returned power to the civilian government and then staged a coup d'état, returning to power in 1962. In 1988, there were protests over a variety of economic and social issues that led to shootings of students and other protestors around the country, but centred in Rangoon. The uprising led to the end of General Ne Win's government and a second military coup leading to the formation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the military junta which ruled the country (although it underwent a reshuffling and a name change to the State Peace and Development Council in 1997) until 2011.

            3. Mary Callahan has similarly noted that the colonial state's failure in establishing effective local police forces created a law enforcement pattern that continued into the contemporary period. As Callahan (2002) writes, this legacy of this colonial era failure is that “when local affairs get unruly, the state sends in the military” (521). This legacy of colonial violence has led to the continued use of violence or the threat of violence in Burma as a means of settling political, legal or other disputes ( Callahan 2002: 535).

            4. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in the November 2015 general elections. However, the NLD's victory is still within a political system where the military can appoint 25 per cent of parliament and Constitutional change requires the approval of over 75 per cent of parliament. Additionally, under the current Constitution, the military retains control over key ministries such as the Ministry of Home Affairs (which controls the police and significant parts of the country's civil service bureaucracy, including a key aspect of land issues in the Registration Department which handles wills and deeds, as well as other registered documents), Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Border Affairs.

            5. “Time for change” was the NLD's campaign slogan for the 2015 elections.

            6. For more on how states value people (for labour, taxation and conscription) as well as resources (in pre-modern states, most often grain), see: Scott (2009, 1999).

            7. Osada (2014) notes, with particular reference to the overseas Chinese, how Rangoon's floating population necessary to meet labour and revenue needs, made policing challenging. One response was the deportation of “undesirable outsiders” as a means of crime prevention through the Foreigners Act of 1864. Disturbances amongst the Chinese community ceased to be a major issue for police once the threat of deportation became a deterrence. Thus, the state was able to create a particular type of foreign resident in Rangoon through policing and preventative deportation of “undesirable” populations by local government. By the mid-1920s, the preventative deportation policy widened to include the urban poor (Osada 2014: 89) and through the Expulsion of Offenders Act of 1926, even included non-Burman criminals (Osada 2014: 90).

            8. For more on the “inside“/“outside” dichotomy in Burma, see: Beatty (2010).

            9. Due process in that there were notices of eviction issued under legislation governing evictions from government land, but as access to justice in Myanmar's court system is notoriously difficult (Cheesman 2015), I am not implying that due process in accordance with international standards was present in any of the cases I witnessed or examined.

            10. Arthur Phayre, commissioner of Pegu, in a communication to Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of India, wrote the following of land rights in Rangoon: Burmese local authorities had levelled the whole of the former existing buildings to the ground, and the townspeople had all fled. None of the original inhabitants having any title deeds and the rights of occupation only being recognised by the former Government, this proceeding appeared to me to have abrogated the only right the inhabitants had in the soil. (Phayre to Govt., IPP/200/26, 8 April 1953, no. 133 and enclosures, cited in Maxim 1992: 49)

            11. Anthony Ware (2015) has recently argued that there are lasting implications related to religious space and religious identities and conflicts in Rangoon due to the design of Rangoon at a time when most of the Burmese residents (including inhabitants of monasteries) had fled due to the war.

            12. The Government of India refers to the British colonial administration that was responsible for the territory of Burma, not the modern nation state of India.

            13. Buddhist religious association building.

            14. For more on the removal of monasteries and the monastic complex, see Ware (2015).

            15. This body was one of the predecessors to the current Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC).

            16. While the report dates from 1911, the practice was likely in use prior to 1911.

            17. A modern municipality was not created in Yangon until 1872 (Webb 1923: 39), with a legal framework enacted under the Burma Municipal Act of 1874 which included provisions for municipal taxation. This was redrafted in 1898, followed by the City of Rangoon Municipal Act of 1922. Without the municipal tax, which went to the municipality rather than the provincial government, there would be no annual property tax on freehold properties in Yangon.

            18. Another issue that was likely to have informed this policy, although I have not yet found anything about it in the literature, is that many of these fire-ravaged buildings, due to colonial Rangoon's development policies, would have been owned by Europeans, Indians, Chinese or the state. Thus, a building destroyed by fire would not be able to be rebuilt as the landowner and paperwork (deeds, sale contracts, etc.) would likely be missing as hundreds of thousands of Europeans, Chinese and Indians left Burma during World War II and following Ne Win's coup in 1962. On government land, or land without an owner, fires freed up use of the land for different purposes as tenants and squatters were cleared.

            19. Following the passage of the Natural Disaster Management Law in 2013 and its accompanying Rules in 2014, fire falls under the category of natural disasters. While the Natural Disaster Management Law is not explicit that the state confiscates the land, the state holds the right to find a suitable location for reconstruction (18d) and can issue criminal charges for entering an area affected by natural disaster without arranging permission from authorities (30b).

            20. See map of proposed 1986 structure plan and actual city expansion from 1985–1990 (Standley and Etherton 1991: 74).

            21. One of the best descriptions of the events leading to the formation of the SLORC came from a recent interview with a post-1988 evictee in Rangoon. The coup was described not as a “real coup” but “more like a stick propping up another stick”. The meaning here is that General Ne Win may have given power to others but he was behind the curtain calling the shots. David Steinberg (2001: 1) also notes how this coup d'état was different than most in that it was a coup designed to shore up a military government by forming another military government.

            22. Standley and Etherton describe the situation in 1984 as one in which an urban housing policy did not exist. As a result of negative experiences with costly and highly subsidized programs producing low outputs, the Government had ceased to consider the provision of housing as a priority issue. This was however in the context of a gradual but sustained build-up of squatters in Yangon and other cities at a scale matching that prevailing in 1958. (Standley and Etherton 1991: 10)

            23. The United Nations designated Burma as a “Least Developed Country” in 1987.

            24. See Standley and Etherton (1991: 61–62). These objectives mapped onto a programme which consisted of (a) land development for sites-and-services resettlement schemes, and for complete housing units for public servants; (b) new and improved roads; (c) urban rail transport; (d) road, rail and pedestrian bridges; (e) parks and gardens; (f) redevelopment for commercial and residential uses of sites cleared as a result of resettlement and fires; (g) clean-up campaigns, building renovations, and repainting of facades; and (h) rehabilitation of drains and water bodies. (Standley and Etherton 1991: 10)

            25. Morley noted in 2013 that some of the new industrial zones and settlements created in 1988 can now take up to 2 hours to reach the city centre by public transport (Morley 2013: 613), but traffic has increased exponentially since the liberalization of car imports by the Thein Sein government led to 130,000 cars imported annually (Sithu Aung Myint 2017) and a significant increase in commute times.

            26. YCDC held the first elections for the nine-member committee in December 2014. However, five of the nine members of the committee, including the chairman, who also serves as Mayor, are appointed by the Union government, leaving only four spots on the committee that are directly elected by the city's electorate. The members elected in 2014 were removed from office by the Yangon Region Chief Minister in 2016, with new elections to follow the long-awaited passage of a new municipal act. At the time of writing in March 2018, there is no committee.

            27. This figure is perhaps misleading, as the formal private construction sector was limited to private homes of primarily wealthy residents with licensed engineers and contractors. Standley and Etherton reported in 1991 that until 1989 there were no formal private sector developers (meaning incorporated and building with licences, permits and all the relevant paperwork). However, there was an informal market that consisted of temporary materials, less well-equipped plots and developers that would build apartment blocks on freehold land, sell the flats, giving a portion of the flats in the building to the landowner free of charge (Standley and Etherton 1991: 60). While formal private sector work saw 100–200 permits received a year, informal private sector work was seeing up to 4,000 initiatives a year in Rangoon (Standley and Etherton 1991: 60).

            28. For more on sanitation in these townships, see: Standley and Etherton (1991).

            29. Until 2012, Myanmar had a dual exchange rate of K6.20 = US$1.00 for use by the government, and a fluctuating black-market exchange rate for everyone else. At the time of the resettlement scheme, the black-market rate was K50–60 = US$1.00. Exchange rate taken from Standley and Etherton 1991: III.

            30. In January 2016, one week before the NLD government was sworn in, 2,500 people were evicted from land owned by Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL, a military conglomerate also known as “U Paing” ) in Mingaladon, Yangon. See: Reuters (2016).


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