Irrawaddy Region Farmers' Hopes of Reclaiming Stolen Land Running Thin

By Salai Thant Zin 25 March 2019

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Region — When the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power in 2016, farmers in Irrawaddy Region dared to hope that the land stolen from them by past military regimes would be returned.

But three years into the NLD’s administration, farmers are starting to feel frustrated with the lack of progress.

“I voted for the NLD in the 2015 general elections with the hope that it would return our land if it became the government. But three years after it took office, our wishes remain unfulfilled,” said Ko Khin Maung Lwin, a farmer in Nyaungdon Township.

The military regime grabbed farms as well as vacant and virgin land from residents in Irrawaddy for various reasons including the construction of government offices and barracks, factories, hotels, railroads and reservoirs.

According to a parliamentary committee formed under the previous Union Solidarity and Development Party government to investigate land disputes, there are more than 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres) of confiscated land in Irrawaddy.

Maubin District has seen the majority of the region’s land disputes, with more than 68,800 hectares (170,000 acres) confiscated in its four townships. According to the district Land Records Department, they were grabbed by the State Peace and Development Council regime in 2000 and granted to 271 private companies.

According to remarks in the Irrawaddy Region Parliament, Ayer Shwe Wah Co. — which U Aung Thet Mann, a son of ex-General and former Lower House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, has shares in — has received about 16,200 hectares (40,000 acres) in Pathein District.

The Irrawaddy Region Land Records Department declined to provide data on the company’s land to The Irrawaddy.

Farmers from Maubin Township, Irrawaddy Region, staged a protest to call for the return of their land. / Salai Thant Zin / The Irrawaddy

Most of the land granted by the military regime to businessmen was labeled vacant or virgin land on the district Land Records Department’s map. But in reality, it was farmland people were using to make a living.

Farmers could do nothing but watch their farms being taken away by people with close ties to powerful generals.

“We begged them to wait until harvest, but the cronies refused and bulldozed the paddy fields. The farmers could do nothing but watch in tears,” said U Than Win, a member of a farmers and growers association in Nyaungdon Township.

The land grabbing has robbed thousands of farmers of their livelihoods, and many local farmers have moved to neighboring Yangon to survive. Some have gone to work in Thailand or Malaysia.

Meanwhile, most of the businessmen handed their land have done little with it, leaving much of it idle.

According to the district Land Records Department, of the 68,800 hectares granted to businessmen, only 27,100 hectares (67,000 acres) have been put to use.

Some companies have sold or leased the land to third parties or rented it back to the original farmers, said U Kyaw Hsan, who represents Nyaungdon in the regional parliament.

After the NLD took power, the government formed the Central Committee for Reviewing Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands and assigned Vice President Henry Van Thio to lead it. Each region formed its own committee with the same mandate, head by their chief ministers.

After U Win Myint took over from U Htin Kyaw as president in 2018, he instructed regional governments to investigate all the land disputes in their jurisdictions by the end of the year and submit reports to the Union government.

But the Irrawaddy committees still has yet to finish its investigations.

According to Irrawaddy Region Chief Minister U Hla Moe Aung, his committee has managed to investigate only 1,311 of 1,544 land disputes, or about 85 percent.

Over the past three years, the Irrawaddy Region government has returned 3,611 hectares (8,924 acres) of land to 1,393 original owners in Maubin, Myaungmya, Pyapon and Pathein districts, a fraction of the 81,000 hectares of land in dispute.

The figures released by U Hla Moe Aung represent only the land disputes the Central Committee for Reviewing Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands asked to be investigated.

Farmers from Laymyethnar Township, Irrawaddy Region, stage a protest to call for the return of their land. / Salai Thant Zin / The Irrawaddy

On the ground, there are mountains of land dispute complaints filed by locals with township-level land review committees in 26 townships across Irrawaddy Region.

“We couldn’t finish even 50 percent of the cases even after trying hard for three years,” said U Kyaw Hsan, who sits on Nyaungdon Township’s land review committee.

In March 2018 the Central Committee for Reviewing Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands issued a 52-point guideline on how to investigate land disputes. It says local committees are to assess whether any land in dispute was confiscated in line with the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, if the projects implemented on the land were beneficial to locals and provided them with jobs, and if compensation was provided.

Despite the guideline, local departments are stalling the process and covering up their misdeeds in cases in which department staff members are involved, said U Kyaw Hsan.

“Some departmental officials are procrastinating by abusing their authority. We only know the cases that they inform us of, and they do not touch the cases that can cause them trouble. And some are covering up their departments’ past misdeeds. So it is difficult to find out the truth,” he said.

Local civil society organizations in Irrawaddy Region say that having government administrators chair the local land review bodies and land records officials serve as secretaries has only made it harder to settle the disputes.

“At the village- and ward-level land review committees, most of the chairpersons and secretaries are involved in previous land grabs. And farmers’ representatives on the committees are not elected systematically, but they are the people who get on well with department officials. In other words, the selection of farmers’ representatives to the committees is quite arbitrary,” said U Myo Chit, chairman of the Irrawaddy Region Farmers Union.

“Though lawmakers are involved in the committees, they have no authority,” he added.

The unnecessary inclusion of officials from the Fisheries Department, Forest Department, Co-operatives Department and others has also delayed the process, said U Kyaw Zeya, a legal officer at Padeitha Moe, a civil society organization that advocates for land rights.

“There are many land disputes in each village. To have a hearing, all the members of the committee, officials from those departments and a lawmaker must be present. But lawmakers have to attend parliamentary sessions, and fisheries officials are too busy with their departmental duties in the rainy season, as are the officials at the Forest Department. Because all of them must be present to make a decision, when can these problems be solved?” he asked.

In October 2018, the Irrawaddy Region land review committee revoked private companies’ ownership of 19,353 hectares (47,822 acres) of land that was not being put to use, according to the region’s Agriculture and Livestock Ministry.

The Irrawaddy Region governments asked people who had their land seized to submit applications to their land records departments to be allowed to farm them again. But people are having trouble just getting the application forms.

Famers sued by private companies at the Nyaungdon Township Court in Irrawaddy Region post for a photograph. / Salai Thant Zin / The Irrawaddy

“A company has abandoned about 3,000 acres [1,214 hectares] of land in our area. We came to know this not because departmental officials informed us, but because civil society organizations told us. We asked the officials at the land records departments to give us application forms, but they didn’t give them to us. Application forms were only given to farmers who worked in partnership with that company. Currently, only those farmers are working on that land,” said Ko Saw Kaw Win, a farmer in Pantanaw Township.

Irrawaddy Region Land Records Department Director U Win Myint, who is also the secretary of the regional land review committee, declined to be interviewed.

The structure of the land review committees should be revised and more representatives from civil society organizations (CSOs) should be included, said U Tin Lin Aung, director of the Pathein-based Green Peasant Institute.

“The representation of departmental officials should be limited to five, and six other members should be representatives for farmers, women, CSOs, ethnic minorities and legal experts. Only then will farmers have justice,” said U Tin Lin Aung.

After news spread that the government would repossess idle land, many businessmen who had acquired such land in Maubin, Nyangdon, Danubyu and Pantanaw townships built fish farms and started commercial paddy fields, leading to clashes with the original owners.

There are dozens of cases in which private companies have filed complaints against the original owners or landless farmers who have moved in and cultivated the plots for themselves.

“It is important that regional governments and parliamentary committees strictly supervise and conduct inspections to ensure the land review committees work in line with the 52-point guideline. Otherwise, the conflicts can result in deaths,” said U Kyaw Zeya.

Nyaungdon resident Ko Khin Maung Lwin was still hopeful that farmers would get their land back by the end of the NLD’s five-year term.

“I still hope that we will get our confiscated land back during the term of the NLD government, which we voted for. I’d like to urge the government to try its best not to kill off our hope, and to ensure the rule of law” he said.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.