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In Session: Decoding Identity across Legal Fora: Lessons from Law and Technology in Asia
3: Digitization, Legibility, and Dispossession in Yangon
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University College London, United States
Transfers of property in Yangon, Myanmar frequently occur without deed registration, which is legally required to complete the transaction. Informal transactions based on mutual agreement rather than contracts secured by state institutions remain a key mode of transferring property. This is due to a variety of post-colonial complications such as citizenship of the buyer or seller, citizenship of the previous owner, abandonment of property by emigrants, and histories of nationalization. However, in popular and government accounts, the lack of deed registration is perceived as resulting from a culture of property speculation and tax avoidance.
Contemporary calls by local government, donors, and the private sector to provide a technocratic solution to the problem of title uncertainty focus on the possibility and seeming necessity of digitizing land records. Digitization is touted as a technical answer to property disputes and illegibility, but it is only a tool, and once initiated may affect property claims in unforeseen ways. The paper explores potential consequences of digitization as a technology capable of increasing transparency and potentially drawing awareness to inequitable distribution and the concentration of Yangon’s property amongst key individuals and sectors. Although it has emancipatory potential, digitization may be used as a tool of surveillance and dispossession, particularly impacting minority communities and the urban poor. The paper argues that the impact of digitization rests on the information it uses – which documents and therefore whose claims to privilege are the most important variables.