RANGOON — Burma’s Minister of Defense said the military has reviewed half of all complaints of land-grabbing by its units, but has so far decided to return only a fraction of all farmland it forcibly seized during the junta-era.
Last year, a parliamentary Farmland Investigation Commission was set up to look into massive land-grabbing by the military in the decades when it ruled the country.
Between July 2012 and January 2013, the commission received 565 complaints from farmers who alleged that the military had forcibly seized 247,077 acres (almost 100,000 hectares) of land, mostly in Irrawaddy Division, central Burma and some ethnic regions.
Defense Minister Lt-General Wai Lwin told Parliament on Tuesday that the military had reviewed 238 complaints so far and decided to return only a fraction of the confiscated land to the affected farmers.
“We will be able to give back 18,364.49 acres [7,431 hectares] of unused farmlands which were confiscated by the army to the original owners,” Lt-Gen Wai Lwin said, adding that affected farmers simply had to accept they could not have all their land back.
“It is impossible for security reasons, to give back lands that are located close to some areas used by the military, such as army practice grounds and buildings, and areas that have projects on it,” he said. “So the farmers need to stop staging protests or their fight to win back their lands.”
The parliamentary commission had recommended that undeveloped lands are returned to their owners or handed over to the state. In cases where land has been developed, affected farmers should receive adequate compensation from the military.
However, the Defense Minister did not address the issue of compensation during Tuesday’s parliamentary session.
Opposition politicians and activists advocating for land rights said the announcement by the minister was but a small step in the right direction.
“It is good that some unused lands would be returned to their owners. We are welcoming the decision,” said Nay Myo Wai, chairman of the Diversity and Peace party, which supports the farmers in their demands.
“But we have to wait and see how much land [the military] would return to the farmers in total. Because they said that there are many cases that remain to be reviewed,” he said.
“If the farmers don’t get back most of their confiscated land, we will have to come up with another way to continue our fight to reclaim the land.”
During a speech at Chatham House in London earlier this week, President Thein Sein acknowledged that land-grabbing was one of Burma most important challenges.
“Land ownership issues … are extremely complex. As part of our drive to foster growth for all the people of Myanmar, we will develop clear, fair and open land policies,” he said.
Burma’s military ruled the country for decades and land seizures by the army for government projects, army zones and industrial estates were widespread. It used the 1963 Land Acquisition Act, which nationalized land ownership across the country, to justify the land grabs and local dissent was brutally crushed.
After President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took over in 2011, the military announced that it would end such practices, but whether it will do so remains to be seen. Land-grabbing by powerful private companies meanwhile, has increased rapidly in the wake of Burma’s socio-economic reforms and rapid economic development.
Across Burma, and particularly in the Irrawaddy Delta, farmers are becoming increasingly bold in demanding back their land or compensation. Farm communities are frequently staging land demonstrations, after the Thein Sein government adopted a more tolerant attitude towards public protest.