Ethnic Civil Society Groups Voice Concern Over Draft Land Use Policy

By Saw Yan Naing 6 November 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — More than 30 ethnic civil society groups and farmers rights organizations voiced concern over the government’s new draft national land use policy in a statement released on Thursday.

The coalition of ethnic organizations criticized the government for excluding small-scale farmers and ethnic civil society representatives from the drafting process.

Sai Khur Hseng, a spokesperson for the 31 different groups, told The Irrawaddy that the land use policy would not guarantee the rights of ethnic communities, especially small-scale farmers.

“It lacks input from representatives of ethnic minority communities at grassroots level,” said Sai Khur Hseng. “It is one-sided and undemocratic as it doesn’t include the voices of communities who will be affected [by the policy] in the future.”

Independent foreign experts and land rights activists representing local communities on the ground were also not invited to participate in formulating the policy, he added.

The government will hold 17 public consultation workshops on the land use policy, mostly in urban areas and big cities, before the draft is finalized in late December. Given the brief consultation period, rights groups are concerned that ethnic communities will miss out on the opportunity to review the policy.

“We worry very much that they [the government] will try to speedily legitimize this policy and seize lands belonging to farmers for business purposes. Communities that will be most affected by the policy can’t complain about anything after the government enforces this policy and uses it as a tool,” said Sai Khur Hseng.

The civil society groups’ statement identified the pro-business nature of the draft policy as a possible trigger for more land issues.

“The current draft of the national land use policy does not prioritize and protect small-scale farmers and minority ethnic peoples, but instead prioritizes and gives special privileges to business investors, which could spark more land grabs and create more land problems in the country,” the statement said.

Sai Khur Hseng warned that the draft policy may allow the government to take control of resource-rich lands. “They are authorized to take over lands in the interests of the nation,” he said.

Burma’s government released the draft national land use policy on Oct. 18. The draft legislation represents an important step in efforts to regulate land tenure in the country, amid a surge in land investment.

In the joint statement, the civil society organizations also expressed concern over the rights of war-affected refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Burma, as there are no provisions in the draft document to address issues of land distribution, restitution or the right of displaced people to return to their land.

The groups called on the government to re-write the policy with the input and participation of representatives from among small-scale farmers, ethnic groups, women, youth, parliamentarians, independent experts and other communities that will be affected by the policy.

Among the rights groups included in the joint statement were the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, the Shan Human Rights Foundation, the Shan Farmers Network, the Mon Agriculture Group, the Karenni Social Welfare and Development Center, the Kachin Development Networking Group, the All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress, and the Chin Farmers’ Network.

The statement was released after the groups held a workshop in the Thai border town of Mae Sot on Nov. 1-2.