Land: The Search for Solutions

By Yen Saning 28 February 2015

Dr. Thaung Htun is director of the Institute for Peace and Social Justice in Myanmar and a leading advocate for fair land use policies and farmers’ rights.

A former member of the All Burma Students Democratic Front and UN representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, he returned to the country in 2013 to help strengthen civil society and share skills and knowledge for a democratic transition.

The government introduced two new land laws in 2012—the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Management Law. Here, Dr. Thaung Htun discusses with The Irrawaddy’s Yen Snaing how these have not solved ongoing issues and why he is still working for land policy and law reform.

Question: With what expectations and aims did you come back to Myanmar?

Answer: I came back to the country in December 2012 with the aim of taking part in strengthening political parties and civil society and to help facilitate discussions on much-needed policy reform in the country. Since 2013, the Institute for Peace and Social Justice (IPSJ) has been helping with capacity building for political parties and civil society groups, and holding policy discussion workshops. We have focused on agricultural reform and land rights.

Currently, we are working on the new draft land-use laws, together with international and local experts. In addition to this, IPSJ has facilitated discussions on rule of law, mining law, the conservation of rivers, sustainable community fishery and alternative energy options. We are also providing technical help to assist in forming farmers’ organizations.

Q: Why did you focus primarily on the agricultural sector?

A: My parents come from a farming family and I wanted to contribute something back to poor farmers. And 70 percent of Myanmar’s population are farmers. The president has said his priority is to reduce poverty. Without legitimizing land tenure security for small farmers, addressing the issue of landlessness and [prioritizing] rural development, poverty reduction can’t succeed.

Micro-finance alone is not enough. There are other needs like upgrading agricultural knowledge, financial management skills, market stability for agricultural products and infrastructure in the agricultural sector. Transportation is also key for sending goods to the market. So is electrification.

But most important is “social capital”—the culture of collective decision making and implementation in village-level development issues, and rural values like honesty, restricting alcohol consumption and gambling, and neighborly help… Checks and balances within society were ruined under authoritarian rule. People lost self-confidence under poverty.

Millions have left for Thailand and Malaysia as undocumented migrant workers. That led to a scarcity of farm workers. Climate change also has an impact. The monsoon comes 15 days late and is gone 15 days earlier. We have seen unusual rain fall due to cyclones in harvesting season. Farmers, individually, cannot resolve all this; it needs to be addressed collectively.

Skills and knowledge for farmers, as well as agricultural policy reform is what is needed. Myanmar is behind Thailand and Vietnam in agricultural productivity.

Q: What is your organization doing in relation to advocacy on the existing laws?

A: What can be achieved is limited. Existing laws include the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Law. The bylaw for the Protecting Rights and Enhancing Welfare of Farmers Law is not finished yet. But these laws cannot fully solve current land ownership disputes and land confiscation issues.

Within limits, farmers can attempt to have their grievances addressed within the framework of the above mentioned laws. To respond to these issues, parliament formed the Farmland Investigation Commission in August 2012. That commission has produced four reports so far which have investigated land confiscation related to: (1) the expansion of urban development; (2) the development of industrial zones; (3) the expansion of military cantonments; (4) national projects such as railways, highways, airports; (5) the building of state factories and plants; (6) the inclusion of existing farmlands in the allocation of land to private agriculture and livestock enterprises.

But the administration is working quite slowly in response to the commission’s suggestions. Among 6,559 complaint letters to the commission, they could only solve 307 cases—only 4.68 percent. Most of the current land issues arose between 1989 and 2010. Land issues arising after 2010 are quite rare, although they exist.

Q: What about other parts of the legal machinery?

A: Problems also arise due to weaknesses in the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. And there are weaknesses in the bureaucracy relating to land records.

Q: There are some cases where lands have been acquired but the farmers don’t receive fair compensation or land substitutes. Is this another weakness?

A: The chapter on land acquisition in the draft National Land Use Policy needs to be more detailed in outlining international best practices. We should take a look at international standards. For example, in India, the land acquisition act enacted during British rule was amended in 2013. They called it The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. It included the right to compensation, pre-notification and negotiation, and transparency in land acquisition and resettlement plans in accordance with current living standards.

Some [project owners] have said they have compensated farmers 30 lakh [3,000,000 kyat] for an acre of land. But farmers only know how to farm and have no idea how to invest in a business. That money will quickly run out.

There are also many problems concerning land valuation and the policy framework needs to be more specific here too. The most important thing is having a pro-poor land use policy framework and amending existing laws: the Farmland Law; the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law; the Forest Law; investment laws; the Mining Law; environmental laws and the Land Acquisition Law in line with that policy framework.

Indonesia and Cambodia have included land redistribution in their recent land policy frameworks in addition to land administration and land management. Industrial countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan rebuilt their economies with an emphasis on land reform, land redistribution and legitimizing land tenure security for small farmers. These reform initiatives motivated small farmers to work hard on their land to improve agricultural output. They believed in farming and their governments lent money and helped improve techniques. From there, they started small and medium sized agro-based industries in rural areas. Production increased in rural areas and the accumulation of capital and business management experience helped create a strong foundation for these countries to transform into industrialized countries.

Q: What’s your outlook for the future?

A: It depends on the political will of those in power. According to some statistics, around 46 percent of the population is landless. We need to create land for them. Their way out now is to go to Yangon and work at Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, or go to Malaysia and Thailand. In some rural areas, there are no youths anymore. How can we handle this?

How are we going to handle unused land? How can the government distribute vacant land and turn it into farmland? What is happening now is that vacant land is given to those who have money. Look at land around Hlaing Tharyar and Shwepyithar, which used to be farmland. It is neither used for agriculture or industry now. Why? Because a minority holds on to that land, to sell on the market as a commodity.

Our land costs are the highest in Southeast Asia. When garment industries come here from abroad, let’s say if they bring US$500,000, they have to spend 80 percent of it on renting land; how can they do business? Without punishing land speculation and land monopolies according to the law, there will be lots of problems in industrial growth, agricultural development and poverty reduction. Current land policy cannot stop this. Policy change is the way forward.