The scramble for the Waste Lands: Tracking colonial legacies, counterinsurgency and international investment through the lens of land laws in Burma/Myanmar

TitleThe scramble for the Waste Lands: Tracking colonial legacies, counterinsurgency and international investment through the lens of land laws in Burma/Myanmar
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsFerguson JM
Secondary TitleSingapore Journal of Tropical Geography
IssueSeptember 2012
Key themesDispossession-grabbing, Distribution, MarginalisedPeople, Policy-law

This article traces the revenue category and legal concept of the Waste Land in Burma/Myanmar from its original application by the British colonial apparatus in the nineteenth century, to its later use in tandem with Burma Army counterinsurgent tactics starting in the 1960s, and finally to the 2012 land laws and current issues in international investment. This adaptation of colonial ideas about territorialization in the context of an ongoing civil war offers a new angle for understanding the relationship between military tactics and the political economy of conflict and counterinsurgent strategies which crucially depended on giving local militias—both government and nongovernment—high degrees of autonomy. The recent government changes, including the more civilian representation in parliament and its shift to engage with Western economies, raise questions regarding the future of the military, as well as local autonomy and the rural peasantry’s access to land. As increasing numbers of international investors are poised to enter the Myanmar market, this article will revisit notions of land use and appropriation, and finally the role of the army and its changing relationship with Waste Lands.


Copyrighted journal article



Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

The article explores the colonial origins of the legal category of “wasteland” and its continuing resonance in present day Myanmar. Making use of extensive historical and anthropological research, the author traces changes in land laws that have occurred alongside Burma’s turbulent political transformations. In doing so, the author draws a link between the state’s strategic classification of land as “wasted”, “unproductive” or “un(der)utilised”, and the appropriation of that land from those with weak or unclear tenure rights. The category of “wasteland” was first derived to covert more land into productive, revenue-generating land for the British colonial tax administration. The concept was then selectively adapted by military actors who used it as part of counterinsurgency tactics against ethnic movements to reclaim “derelict” land outside state control. The current push to commercialise agriculture by opening up the country to foreign investment is posited as the latest iteration of the use of the “wasteland” classification to appropriate land. The notion of “wasted”, “unproductive” lands of little ecological or economic significance is fundamental to the ethos of granting land concessions, making it “available” for productive investment in the eyes of the State.

Key Themes: 
  • Land dispossession/land grabbing - The article underscores the central role that classifications of lands as “wasted” or “underutilised” play in legitimising dispossession and eviction of farmers and ethnic minorities in order to effect state control over territory and derive profits. The article highlights the importance of considering dispossession and land grabbing in the context of conflict and post-conflict political economic landscapes. Before Myanmar opened up politically, the Tatmadaw (central armed forces) would extract land and other contributions from villagers by theft and rent seeking to sustain its troops whilst they continued to battle ethnic insurgent forces in the country’s borderlands. With foreign direct investment presenting unprecedented opportunities for profit, the State has turned its attention to large scale, capital intensive, resource extraction and agriculture projects, which have resulted in widespread dispossession of rural communities. The customary lands of ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to seizure by the State for reallocation to private concessions under the pretext of acquiring ‘vacant’ ‘wasteland’.
  • Land distribution: concentration/dispersion, landlessness - Designating land as ‘vacant’ or ‘wasteland’ serves to legitimise the redistribution of land according to state priorities and agendas. That includes state appropriation of land held under customary arrangements that is important to sustain local livelihoods. Because this land has been framed as having unrealised potential it is then easily reallocated to companies which often have connections to senior politicians and/or the military.
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - Ethnic minorities in peripheral conflict zones in Myanmar have historically been viewed as a threat to state authority. The project of bringing contested territories under state control through dispossession has been geared at bringing ethnic movements to heel, rather than as a means to elevate them from conditions of poverty. The historical trajectory of land laws in Myanmar has left ethnic rural populations, particularly those in conflict zones, suspicious of laws passed under the current reform process that claim to be promoting national development and peace by courting foreign investors. As the coveting of new alliances between state actors and private companies evolves there is significant potential for disputes to reignite conflict.
  • Land policy and land law - Reconstructing national policy and law to legitimise new forms of control over land which favour state and economic actors has a long history, originating in colonial strategies of dispossession. The article demonstrates remarkable continuity in the legal classification of “wasteland” from colonial era laws through to 2012 land laws giving the State the right to allocate “fallow” or “vacant” land to private investors. In the context of Myanmar’s historical and continuing state of conflict in contested ethnic areas, land laws have been harnessed to military practices of exploitation and dispossession, undermining the rights and autonomy of indigenous groups. This has left the ethnic rural populations, particularly those in conflict zones, suspicious of laws and policies under the current reform process that claims to be essential to the project of ‘national development’ and peace. This has shaped the response of civil society towards laws and policies designed to attracted foreign investors in agriculture and land based developments.
Research basis: 

The article is based on extensive historical research drawing on literature documenting legislative developments and policy transformations within Myanmar.