Regaining their own land
Few topics raise more contentious conversation in Myanmar than land issues. Politicians continue to campaign on land rights, seeking votes from the vast lower class. The most affected tend to be least able to fight back. The accused? Government(s), military, ethnic armed groups, and national and foreign investors who unfairly seize land - mostly from farmers- to convert into infrastructure, or use as a bargaining chip for their deals.
“See that hotel over there? That was my family’s land,” says Kyaw Aye*. “But let’s drive past quickly; I don’t want them to sue me again for stepping on my land.”
Skipping the tourist attractions, People in Need (PIN) visits a group of farmers that have lived in Inle Lake region in central Myanmar for decades growing paddy, firewood, bamboo, mangoes, jackfruit, sunflower, and beans. The area was supposed to be protected for its environmental value, but activists supported by PIN report that 900 acres were seized from farmers last year for the construction of Sky Palace Hotel Inle. The hotel is a venture of the Sky Palace Hotels Group.
The guidebook Lonely Planet lists Inle Lake as Myanmar’s second top attraction. Investment interest is increasing, evidenced by ongoing construction around the lake to build roads, infrastructure and hotels to accommodate the rising number of tourists.
As farmers do not typically possess legal documentation proving their right to use the land, the government often assumes it as public property and sells it to the private sector. Despite many amendments, Myanmar’s constitution still says, “the state is the ultimate owner of all lands.”
This means that if one doesn’t accept the deal, the government will seize the land. Bulldozers arrive with stamped documents and work start so fast farmers have neither time nor tools to organize and claim their rights. Construction by-products often prevent land from ever being productive again, leaving bewildered farmers lost in bureaucracy and frustrated by unaccountable authorities.
Kyaw Aye, who worked a firewood field, is just one of the victims of the country´s growing openness to tourism. Though he doesn’t consider the case over, he realizes he has little recourse now: the hotel is already built, trees are cut, streets almost finished, bricks all around.
"When I received the letter saying that I had been sued for trespassing on someone else’s land, I was so shocked that I even asked myself: Am I wrong? Do I have to go to jail? Do I have to compensate them?” Aye explains. His only wish now is to receive fair compensation, which he has attempted unsuccessfully this past year.
“In the past, people and institutions with power took their land by force. Now it is more about corruption and speculation,” says Khun Kaung, project officer of Pa-O Youth Organization (PYO).
When they seize everything you have, all you can do is prove everything you lost
So is there anything affected people can do? “Government and companies know very well the techniques to divide the community. They even approach [Buddhist] monks to seek influence. The community should be active and not accept this [unfair compensation],” a land rights defender from Justice Drums says. According to the 1894 Land Acquisition Law, if the previous owners can prove the seizure, the new owners would have to compensate them.
After enduring bureaucratic procedures, and with support of local civil society organizations, some farmers have received compensation from 10,000 to 50,000 kyats (from 6 to 30 USD). But this amount does not cover even the value of the lost crops, let alone the value of the land or future agricultural profits.
Other industries, too, are harming the poorest in the name of development. Construction of dams, highways, and electricity infrastructure, exchange of lands between military and armed groups for agreements, exploitation of natural resources, and even development of football fields are occurring at the expense of farmers. When this happens, everyone focuses on gathering, sharing and safekeeping evidence. Scanned letters sent to the government, before and after pictures of land-grabbing, official documents wrapped in plastic, and drafted village maps to replicate the inexplicably disappeared official ones.
U Thar Maung*, 47, claims his three acres of bamboo fields were confiscated. Now jobless, he goes to other peoples’ fields when he is allowed to. “Before the land grabbing happened I was satisfied, I lived on my own land. I have a family of eight and I can’t take care of them anymore. I am of a certain age now and I am scared.”
Land right defenders’ mobile phones are loaded with videos, Facebook posts, scans, publications with reports. Activists from Kaungrwai Social Justice & Development Organization play videos of polluted air and water in Southern Shan State because of factories from three industries –antimony (a mineral used in certain metals and batteries), cement and steel- built where farmers’ houses and fields used to be.
So many laws, so little accountability
“Over the past several years of transition, the government has made several attempts to readdress the issue, yet it has failed to protect the land rights of the people,” says Richard Weir from Human Rights Watch, who recently led research on the issue. Reports that do exist of historical land confiscation are from the 90s during a dictatorship when many farmers were displaced and lost their livelihoods due to government and military officials’ negligence. In the recent democratic transition, confiscation cases keep increasing while attempts to set up commissions and draft new laws have failed to provide solutions.
“The structure hasn’t been willing to bend and it’s disheartening,” Weir says. He suggests incorporating the nearly 20 existing laws under one umbrella law that would reduce some of the complexity, for both ongoing and future cases. For that, “the government has to be open to be challenged by the civil society and have a robust discussion with them,” he explains.
The Union Parliament has been considering amendments to three core land laws, and land rights defenders advocate for recognition of customary land tenure of ethnic minorities, which could play a role in the peace process. However, land rights defenders fear such amendments would mainly benefit business and military interests and await a more clear and inclusive National Land Law.
“In 2012 the government drafted a law on land issues and many people could ask to get form 7 [the farm land work permit certificate]. In some cases, when the army tried to give the confiscated land back to the community, they offered rocky land which is not good for farming,” explains another member of a civil society group in Shan state. On top of that, ethnic perspectives were not considered when land was allocated for compensation. This can cause problems as each ethnic group gives different uses to the land.
Until recently, most affected people lacked relevant community representation, according to Weir. For him, it is crucial that this new wave of land rights defenders and advocates are able “to establish solid evidence, to develop comprehensive investigations as well as to ensure that representatives in the legislative bodies will consult the communities before voting laws and that are in line with international standards.”
PIN encourages civil society participation in public affairs and political dialogue in the Mandalay region and in Kayin, Mon and Shan states through a project funded by the European Union and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. Alongside its implementation partners (Loka Ahlinn and the European Partnership for Democracy), PIN has worked to improve relations between local CSOs (including those working on land rights) and representatives of regional parliaments, local government bodies and the media. PIN has been able to support leaders of CSOs by co-organizing trainings on topics like advocacy techniques, project design, managerial skills and strategic alliances; providing grants; and campaigning together.
Small victories, steps forward
In some villages, generations have already been turned upside down: children and teenagers work on small patches of land that have been left to them; grandparents take turns watching the smallest children and working, even while their energy fades; and parents are forced to migrate abroad (mostly to Thailand and China) and send money back home so their relatives can survive.
But land rights defenders’ work, complicated as it is, is making strides in this transitioning country. “Myanmar People Alliance (Shan State)” is a CSO supported by PIN that has been following two cases of displaced people on the pretext of state's development plans: a power cable building and a bridge and road construction in Naung Cho Township. In the latter, a total of 248 farmers from 15 villages were affected by land acquisition for a government plan to construct a critical trade road to link Myanmar and China. This CSO provided trainings to build understanding of the affected communities on relevant land laws. Together, they concluded that authorities were infringing upon rights. In the end, farmers stood up for their rights, received fair compensation, and even succeeded in changing plans for building an adjacent hotel, which will now follow the same steps to compensate affected people.
*Real names of affected people mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identity.