The fertile red soil that was previously used for seasonal farming is now being marked with poles and converted into commercial plots for sale.
Lashio, a bustling trading hub between China and Myanmar, is currently witnessing the operation of multiple bulldozers that are converting farmland into saleable plots.
This recent activity has turned buying and selling land into a significant business in the Lashio region.
Sai Kyaw, a resident of Lashio, stated that “there has been a significant increase in the sale of land plots in Lashio in recent years. Land is being bought and sold in the entire town, including the surrounding villages.”
Chinese being the majority of land buyers
The business of buying and selling land in Lashio is not something new; however, after the military coup in Myanmar, the land price has increased rapidly. The country’s economy has been in decline, causing many ordinary citizens to sell their land as a way to make ends meet. At the same time, wealthier individuals are investing in land, leading to a surge in prices that has surpassed initial predictions.
“The military coup has had adverse effects on the economy, leading to inflation and fluctuations in the price of gold. There is also a prevailing sense of insecurity and an increase in criminal activity. The announcement that individuals caught hoarding USD cash would be subject to arrest has made it impractical to purchase and keep USD. Additionally, people are reluctant to keep their money in banks due to the challenges associated with withdrawing deposits, which encourages them to invest in real estate instead. Common people have resorted to selling their land to make ends meet”, a land broker, who chooses to go by the name Sai Hlu, explaining the reason for the increase in land prices.
According to locals, the primary buyers of land in Lashio are wealthy Chinese individuals, with many of them coming from the Kokang region. As a result, the prices of land in Lashio have increased significantly after the military coup, with a house with front yard in the center of Lashio costing as much as 500 million kyats (5,000,000,000) and a 60-foot block of land costing up to 300 million kyats (300,000,000).
“Most of the buyers are Chinese, with many Kokang-Chinese currently residing in Loi Lomt and Mae Han villages. The land continues to be divided and marked into plots for sale. Once a Taáng village, Loi Lomt village is now primarily Kokang-Chinese,” said a local woman who lives near Loi Lomt village.
There are Chinese nationals who are attempting to buy land in Myanmar through marriage with women who are citizens of Myanmar. Meanwhile, others are purchasing land by acquiring a Myanmar citizen verification card themselves.
One of the village administrators, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, stated that, “The majority of people who came to buy land are Chinese from Kokang, Kunlong, and Hopan. Chinese buyers of land can do it in a number of ways; for instance, some Chinese obtain Myanmar identity cards, while others do not”.
The village administrator recounted his observations and experiences regarding Chinese nationals who are not Myanmar citizens marrying Myanmar women and buying land.
According to the village administrator, “We had a case where a Chinese citizen was interested in buying land, but since he was not a citizen, we could not sell to him.” The administrator went on to explain that the individual then decided to marry a local woman and return to purchase the land. “He requested that his name be used for registering the land, not his wife’s. However, we informed him that it was not possible, and he eventually decided not to make the purchase,” the administrator recounted.
According to the village administrator, it is also possible for certain Chinese nationals to obtain identity cards by paying a fee of 1,000,000 kyats at immigration offices.
Many Chinese residents of Lashio do not speak Burmese, the village administration noted. While other ethnic nationalities find it extremely difficult, Chinese people can easily obtain identity cards. The Chinese have the financial means to pay significant sums, up to $1 billion. The administrator voiced dismay, saying, “If our ethnic nationality requests ID cards, the immigration staff will cite their own workload as an excuse.
The administrator claims that the current military administration may be issuing identity cards to Chinese citizens in an effort to influence the forthcoming election.
The administrator also pointed out that since the coup, Shan State’s rule of law has gotten worse, leading to an increase in criminal activities including drug use and gambling.
“Most of the hotels and guesthouses in Lashio are fully occupied, with very few rooms available. Apparently, the Two Elephants hotel has only its downstairs rooms available, as the upstairs has been transformed into a casino. This is also where the guests who came to purchase land are currently staying,” according to a woman from Lashio.
Some administrators and locals claim that Chinese land buyers are in a rush to purchase land in Lashio Township so they can construct casinos and places to gamble.
“Around here, we have hotels that operate casinos, and in addition to that, there are gambling dens being set up in residential areas and open spaces. People who are interested in running gambling activities are going around renting land areas for this purpose. They even approached me to rent out residential areas for gambling, including my own house, but I refused. However, some local residents do rent out their properties,” explained the 50-year-old village administrator.
Lashio is where Myanmar North-Eastern Command is based, and also where military-affiliated People Militia Groups and a few other Ethnic Armed Organizations are active.
The unlawful land-selling activity is not, however, opposed by any of the armed forces. Instead, these associations and groups are obtaining taxes from people who are selling the land.
How is land purchased and sold?
The country’s economy shrank within two years following the military takeover, and individuals began to struggle to make a living and survive. On the other hand, there has been an increase in crime, banditry incidents, and gambling.
The locals in the area are selling their agricultural land to brokers for prices ranging from 500 to 800 lakhs to overcome their subsistence difficulties.
Moreover, due to concerns that the government and military may confiscate their land under military rule, people feel compelled to sell their land.
Brokers with financial resources would go out and purchase land from farmers, dividing it into plots of land for sale.
“Brokers purchase land from the local owners and then proceed to measure and demarcate it into suitable plots for sale. The Land Use Certificate (Form 7) is a document that is obtained when the land is purchased from the original owners and remains valid even after the land is divided into smaller plots for sale,” explained land broker Sai Hlu.
The majority of land brokers or dealers have some kind of relationship with government administration offices, notably those who work in land registeration departments (either as their acquaintances, family, or relatives). The current booming land market is making these land brokers earn huge amounts of money, continued Sai Hlu.
Sai Hlu, a land broker, explained, “Many people lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the coup. However, some have become land brokers and have become wealthy through the land selling business. For instance, in Lashio, if the husband has gained wealth as a land dealer, his wife would work as a staff member at the department of land registration. When the wife works as a broker, the husband works in administration. They can easily issue the land certification form, which speeds up the land selling and brokering process.”
It is said that Burmese account for the majority of brokers in Lashio, with only a small number belonging to other ethnic groups.
The authority to sell or build homes on agricultural or farmed land plots that are registered under land-use certificate (Form. 7) forms are prohibited by the constitution of Myanmar.
Additionally, it is stated in the Land Law that foreigners are not permitted to sell vacant land.
However, agricultural or farming land is being sold unlawfully in the Lashio area, according to one of the Ward 5 administrators in Lashio town.
According to some administrators, the land transactions that are happening currently involve brokers who go through layers of approvals and involve bribing town, township, and district level officials.
“First, you must submit an application form in the owner’s name in order to sell farm land. However, the brokers start the selling process even before the approval for the sale has been given. While bribing money to the township-level officials, the brokers would proceed with dividing the land into plots for sale. Township and district level officials have given their approval for this to be done,” the administrator declared.
The people who are involved in selling and brokering the sale of land have close family connections with individuals working at the Land Registration Office, making the process easier for them. However, many of the government officials working in these offices are not from the local ethnic nationalities but are mainly Burmese or from other areas.
“Those who are working as land agents now have nice cars and are building good-quality (RC) reinforced concrete homes because their relatives are employed in the General Administration Department and the Land Department. We cannot find anyone of ethnic nationality in these government offices. I want young people from the local ethnic group to work in these departments. Now, people of other nationalities will dominate our town and region,” lamented Sai Hlu.
Those land dealers are simply looking at the money’s face, as the old saying goes, “It doesn’t matter who dies as long as we survive.” These brokers do not know the law, and they don’t care about the long-term impacts of selling land to the Chinese..
Why would locals sell their land?
“Some residents are being pressured to sell their land even if they do not want to, as they are told that their land may be confiscated. This information is being spread by administrators from the General Administration Department, not the Regional Commander”, stated Sai Hlu of the reason why some people opt to sell their land.
Based on what was confirmed by several land brokers; the son of the North-Eastern Commander, Brgdr. General Naing Naing Oo is one amongst those who make plots of land to sell in the Lashio township.
The residents are forced to sell their land as a result of the son of the Brigadier General’s threat.
Sai Hlu reported, “The son of the commander is currently dividing land into smaller plots for sale in Ward 10 and in the Htin Shu Myine (Pine Forest) neighborhood. He is also working as a broker, and the majority of his land plots are being sold to Chinese buyers.”
“The commander’s son has threatened residents, telling them that if they do not want their land to be included in the confiscated land projects, they have to sell. In addition, due to clashes between Ethnic Armed Organizations in Kyaukme District, which is a neighboring district of Lashio, many people have relocated to Lashio,” as per the information provided by Sai Hlu.
Sai Hlu explained that “most people fled from the armed clashes to stay in the town. Some fled to town in order to avoid their sons or family members being recruited. Hence, these people would choose to buy land that is not that expensive. “
The constitution allows for the sale of agricultural land, but it prohibits the construction of houses and buildings on such land.
One of the legal experts who preferred to remain anonymous explained that “according to the constitution, agricultural land could be sold but houses and buildings are not permitted to be built on such land. The land is allocated for agriculture and plantation, so selling it for building houses goes against the law.”
Under the military administration, local residents are expressing concerns that Lashio is becoming more like a Chinese city, despite the laws in place.
“I am worried that it will become a Chinese capital later. Some people sell their land as they need money and they are into money. Since I am an only one person I am incapable of objecting to this trend. If possible I don’t want people to sell their land”, remarked one of the village administrators in Lashio Township. So other people would take over the city with wealth, such as gold and money. As an individual, I feel powerless to voice my disapproval of this trend. I wish people didn’t sell their land,” said one of the village administrators in Lashio Township.