IEE Newsletter No. 30

Visiting fellow (PhD Exchange) from ISS and key findings from a field research in Myanmar

Yukari Sekine reports on her fieldwork and reflections on her late stage PhD
As a PhD candidate at the ISS, with the support of the RUB Research School funding, I am doing a 6-month exchange at the IEE from September 2019 to February 2020, by invitation of Anne Siebert and Prof. Gabrielle Bakker. I am in the final stage of my PhD, in a post-fieldwork phase, writing up my thesis. I will also be collaborating with Anne on some comparative studies based on our research. I am looking forward to learning from my colleagues at the IEE about their research.

In my PhD project “Climate change mitigation politics and land grabbing in Myanmar: shifting the terrain of struggle ‘from below’, I look at the responses of villagers and NGO activists to some of the cumulative impacts of land grabbing – in the form of large-scale agribusiness concessions for palm oil, often by crony businesses; extractivism in the form of mining; and what we have come to call ‘climate change mitigation politics’, or on-the-ground conservation efforts and discourses around this that have exclusionary effects for forest users. Small-scale users are often blamed for environmental degradation, even as large-scale agribusinesses and large-scale infrastructure projects are the greater causes of logging and deforestation, with mining also contributing to exclusionary social impacts and environmental degradation.

This research builds on recent work by other scholars who have investigated the intersection between climate change mitigation initiatives and land grabs (Borras et al. 2019), or how conservation has been used to create state territory or ‘green territorialization’ in the southern Myanmar region (Woods, 2019). Others have looked at how historic capitalist transformations across the land- and seascapes, through extractivist off-shore gas projects and large-scale fishing, have affected surrounding access to land and ocean resources, with implications for current and future exclusions (Barbesgaard, 2019). Land grabs also have gendered and generational dimensions, and disproportionately affect women in their access to and control over land and natural resources, and decision-making, exacerbating existing inequalities within villages and households (Park, 2019). All of these dynamics occur in Myanmar, a contested political environment where struggles over land laws and policies are abundant; where in many areas, governance is contested between the Burmese central state and ethnic armed groups; or where there are tensions between formal property rights and customary tenure arrangements, with implications for small-scale farmers, marginalized groups, ethnic minorities, internally displaced people and returning refugees (Franco and Khu Khu Ju, 2016)

These discussions are part of a wider debate on the so-called ‘global land rush’, or the increase in investments in land, particularly by transnational investors seeking land in the global south since the 2007-2008 convergence of financial, food, environment, and climate crises[MOU1] . In this context, my PhD research looks at the current historical, institutional, and political-economic conjuncture of Myanmar, and how these global dynamics have created new opportunities and threats for political struggles from below, towards ‘agrarian climate justice’ (Borras and Franco, 2018), a concept that combines principles of ‘agrarian justice’ – linked to struggles for recognition, redistribution and restitution of land – and ‘climate justice’ – for equality and justice in the distribution of responsibility and impacts of climate change. The research is placed within the field of agrarian studies and political ecology, with some components of social movement theory.

The following questions guided the research:

·             In what ways are climate change interventions and land grabs re-ordering social relations in Myanmar? With what exclusionary effects?

·             What are the political reactions ‘from below’? What are opportunities and fault-lines in building a more broad-based movement toward agrarian, environmental and climate justice struggles?

I use the notion of ‘scaling up’ struggles, a combined meaning of: (i) the expansion of the web of networked grassroots organizations; (ii) the creation of new relations with the state and state-like ethnic armed organizations; and relatedly, (iii) the ‘thickening of civil society’ in order to strengthen political power. In Myanmar, such struggles are embedded in: i) a recent turn toward economic liberalization, with implications for transformation in rural areas; ii) a contested process of ‘democratization’ and shifts from military rule; and (iii) historic and sometimes ongoing conflict between the Burmese military and ethnic armed groups, with implications for how villagers and activists go about their struggles.

Scholar-activism and engaged research

My research has been part of the">MOSAIC research project (2014-2018) which had three key pillars: a landscape perspective, co-production of knowledge, and a commitment to support action for change. In a scholar-activist approach, researchers supported the work of grassroots NGO’s, offering conceptual signposts, and engaging in discussions and network-building. In the southern Tanintharyi region, this was complemented by in-depth interviews, conversations with activists, participant observation of activities in several field visits in 2016-2018, in addition to NGO reports, news, and policy reports. The focus has been on goals, framings and discourses, strategies, and alliance-building of NGO and CSO actors, understood within the wider structural, institutional, ecological dynamics. Two grassroots organizations, Dawei Development Association (DDA) and Southern Youth (SY), were fundamental in my gaining access to, and engaging with, local communities; but also in providing insights to and helping organize workshops and discussions that were part of the wider MOSAIC project. Dynamics have changed significantly over the 3 years I have been going to and from Myanmar/Tanintharyi. Through this experience, I have observed a quick evolution of how CSOs are working together, learning, and acting. Land has become a pressing issue around which they have converged; but so has conservation, which, as focused in forested areas mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities, is often affected by previous conflict.

Some findings

At the same time, in order to fulfil the need to ‘scale up’ strategies, my study identifies potential inter-related fault-lines in the process of scaling up resistance, including:

(i)            the very proximity and nature of engagement with the state and how it can affect perception of potential allies. This relation with the state is of particular sensitivity among CSOs and NGO activists working in Myanmar, in areas of contested governance, as these are also sites of historic conflict and violent incursions, particularly in the 1990s, justified under the idea of national unity and border development. For example, when creating citizen-led monitoring mechanisms for the mining sector, the proximity and direct engagement to construct a multi-stakeholder platform can be seen by others as working too closely with the state. These differences are, however, negotiated, and collective work is dynamic and constantly shifting according to the urgency and needs.

(ii)           competing political tendencies within the network, as proposed by Borras et al. (2012) which understands three political tendencies in terms of how actors and policies are positioned in their approach to large-scale land deals. The first tendency seeks to facilitate land deals to benefit the corporate sector, and sees this as a solution in addressing the food, energy, and financial crises, supporting regulations that facilitate clear property rights and the functioning of markets, through administrative capacities. The second tendency sees the need to regulate land-related investments in order to maximize opportunities but mitigate negative impacts, often through CSR-type solutions and using human rights and environmental standards to facilitate but establish limits to those investments. The third tendency questions mainstream models of development and defends stopping or rolling back of large-scale land acquisitions. This is often a tendency taken by actors who do not believe such mode will solve hunger and environmental crises, and who believe in the possibility of alternative tenure arrangements, as well as alternative visions such as food sovereignty – including people’s right to decide about their own food and ecological systems. In practice, the divergences within the networked organizations and how they position themselves in relation to these tendencies has created tensions within the network, as some organizations are interested in supporting initiatives that are closer to tendency 1, while others have strongly stood by tendency 3, even as these fluctuate through tendency 2. Such tensions arose in the discussions around land policy making at national level, when the process of including citizens in the discussion was contested and divided along such lines.

(iii)          ethnic politics and challenges in building trust and common strategies in the dynamic and contested institutional and political arenas in Myanmar. This has an effect on how organizations frame their demands and articulate a common identity – such as the emerging framing of ‘indigeneity’, which resonates more closely with those living in the contested and border areas. This also has implications for strategies when advocating for changes in land policies and implementation, as ethnic armed organizations sometimes have their own land policies and governance structures, with varying degrees of accountability among the people in their controlled areas. These differences are, of course, not irreconcilable; and having urgent common interests such as having a more just National Land Use Policy or contesting unjust land laws (namely the Farmland Law and the Vacant Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law) demonstrates the importance of a cross-ethnic coalition.

While the dynamic and fluid political context in Myanmar means that the scenario is constantly changing and strategies ‘from below’ are being adapted to the circumstances, it is possible to see that historic grievances do play a role, but do not define the trajectories of how these political processes unfold. This is also the challenge for engaged researchers working in the field, where trust must be built over long periods of time, and through sharing of common principles of social justice, even as these are being constructed and struggled over.

Mar4 MSPPMeeting with villagers affected by MSPP palm oil company in Myeik, Tanintharyi, Myanmar. Photo: Mosaic Project

IMG 2471

Land in our hands (LIOH) network meeting in Yangon, prior to a press conference on land laws. Source: Sekine

IMG 1629Watershed inauguration ceremony in Lenya Forest, Tanintharyi, Myanmar. Source: Sekine.


Barbesgaard, M. (2019). Ocean and land control-grabbing : The political economy of landscape transformation in Northern Tanintharyi , Myanmar. Journal of Rural Studies, (July 2018), 1–9.
Borras, S. M. J., Franco, J. C., Ngwe, S., Zin, T., Myint, Y. L., Park, C., … Sekine, Y. (2018a). The twin challenge of agrarian and climate justice: connections and contradictions between climate change mitigation politics, land grabbing and conflict in Myanmar.
Franco, J., & Ju, K. K. (2016). Land and peace in Myanmar: two sides of the same coin, 62–64. Right to Food and Nutrition Watch.
Woods, K. (2019). “Green Territoriality: Conservation as State Territorialization in a Resource Frontier.” Human Ecology. doi:10.1007/s10745-019-0063-x.
Park, C.M.Y (2019). Gender, Generation and Agrarian Change: Cases from Myanmar and Cambodia. Doctoral Dissertation. International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague.Erasmus University Rotterdam.

 2019 09 Yukari Sekine

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