Civil Society Groups Demand National Land Restitution Policy for Displaced Communities 

By Tin Htet Paing 9 June 2016

RANGOON — Several of Burma’s civil society organizations (CSOs) and ethnic community leaders have called for the government to develop a national land restitution policy for communities displaced by conflict.

Their concerns were expressed at a public forum on Wednesday following a two-day workshop organized by The Border Consortium (TBC) and the Transnational Institute (TNI). CSOs and community leaders aimed to establish a national platform for displaced communities to be able to claim land and property rights, review international standards and increase joint advocacy.

Representatives came up with nine key principles and recommendations, emphasizing that all land-related policies, regulations and procedures must be in line with customary land use practices and tenure systems in ethnic areas. They also stressed that displaced communities and local people should be informed and involved in all levels of the decision-making process in relation to return and resettlement.

“Displaced communities are entitled to restore their housing, land and property rights in their place of origin,” their statement said.

Representatives highlighted that IDPs and refugees have the right to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, adding that national reconciliation and the peace process are key to their sustainable return and resettlement.

Naw Blooming Night Zan, finance manager of the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) said that security concerns remain the most critical consideration for IDPs and refugees, adding that military bases should be removed and landmines should be demarcated and immediately cleared in and around origin villages.

“Whenever we talk to [refugees and IDPs] about returning home, they ask me: Are there military troops? Are there any landmines?” said Naw Blooming Night Zan.

She told the Irrawaddy that there is a need for advocacy work in order to prompt the government to take steps toward implementing national land restitution policies.

Saw Alex from the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) told The Irrawaddy that these principles and recommendations are fundamental to initiating action.

“The government has to have a broad platform for all concerned parties, which means involving local people, refugees, IDPs, CSOs, community organizations, international society, all armed groups and the government army,” he explained.

He added that any future policies should be able to be systematically implemented nationwide for the benefit of all displaced communities.

Naw Blooming Night Zan made the point that “returning voluntarily with dignity” also applies to those who don’t want to return to the country.

“When we talk about returning and resettlement, some refugees who are probably not willing to return to Burma should also be accounted for,” she said. “We can’t force them to go back.”

Sai Nor Hseng of the Shan Youth Network said at the forum that land rights are very important to IDPs and refugees because they left their land—which used to be their “life”—due to armed conflict.

“Where is their place when they come back, and do they have the right to claim their original land?” he asked. “What if there is no place to live or no farm to work when they return?”

Although the representatives demanded a return of all arbitrarily confiscated land to the “original land owners,” they said that there needed to be an explicit definition of “original land owner” which retained respect for customary land use practices and tenure systems in ethnic areas.

A 2015 research report called “The Meaning Of Land In Myanmar” by the TNI stated that there is no internationally recognized human right to land, unlike water or food.

“While a right to property was established in Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was not codified in the subsequent legally binding international conventions,” the research said.

The report highlighted that the connection between land and human rights is a tangible part of the everyday experience of many small-scale farmers and other food producers around the world, citing the unique customary land use practices of Burmese farmers.

According to TBC, there are roughly 120,000 Burmese refugees in nine official camps on the Thai-Burma border, some of who have resided there for over two decades. The UN’s refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated in a report last year that there were about 500,000 conflict-affected IDPs in Burma, but accurate figures are difficult to assess due to limited access in the concerned areas.