Govt Committee to Settle All Land Grab Cases in Six Months

By Htet Naing Zaw 1 July 2016

NAYPYIDAW — The Central Committee on Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands will settle all land grabbing cases in Burma within “six months,” said Naypyidaw Council Chairman Myo Aung.

Myo Aung unveiled the ambitious plan to reporters after a ceremony marking the return of land to around 70 dispossessed farmers in Naypyidaw’s Zeyarthiri Township. On Thursday they were given temporary farmland tenure permits for more than 200 acres confiscated between 2006 and 2013; the seized land had been used to house the newsrooms, printing press and staff quarters of state-run newspapers The Light of Myanmar (Myanma Alinn) and The Mirror (Kyemon).

“The central committee decided in a meeting to resolve all [land grab cases] within six months,” said Myo Aung.

The committee chaired by Vice President Henry Van Thio is situated within Burma’s executive branch and is distinct from existing parliamentary committees with similar portfolios. It is tasked with monitoring state and divisional governments’ handling of land disputes, and enabling the return of land to dispossessed farmers from government ministries, state-owned enterprises and private companies.

The committee has adopted a policy that adequate compensation should be provided to dispossessed farmers, many of whom had received only nominal sums, or nothing at all, after the confiscation of their land. The committee also maintains that government ministries, state-owned enterprises and private companies should disown confiscated lands which they no longer use.

Land grab cases in Burma assumed prominence after the reformist administration of ex-President Thein Sein took office in 2011. In 2012, Burma’s Union Parliament set up the Farmland Investigation Commission to probe land confiscation cases.

In 2013, the Land Utilization Management Central Committee was established, chaired by then-Vice President Nyan Tun. It was charged with implementing the recommendations of the commission and facilitating the return of seized land.

According to findings of the Farmers Affairs Committee in the Upper House of Parliament, as many as 2 million acres of land across Burma could be considered “confiscated.”

Naypyidaw Council Chairman Myo Aung told the media, “We gave the farmers Form-3, which allows them to use the farmland temporarily. We plan to give them Form-7 [a certificate of permanent tenure] within the year. With Form-7, farmers would be allowed to transfer, hand down, sell and put their farms up as collateral to receive bank loans.”

However, Myo Aung explained that, in order for farmers to receive Form-7 denoting full restitution, farmers would have to pay back in full whatever compensation they received from the government when their lands were seized.

The council chairman remarked that many farmers would struggle to make the repayment in one go, and so the council was considering a scheme allowing the farmers to pay back the sum in installments.

Khin Zaw, a farmer from Wegyi village who received temporary tenure rights for his confiscated land on Thursday, told The Irrawaddy they may be among those who have to return compensation to obtain Form-7.

Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock Tun Win told the Irrawaddy that resolving land disputes was one of the priorities of the new government.

“Our government wishes to give back land to the rightful owners,” he said, referencing the smallholder farmers who still make up the bulk of Burma’s population.

However, the return is difficult in cases where lands were seized illegally by the government and re-sold “officially” to new owners, including cronies and foreign investors. Fully addressing such cases could result in confrontation with Burma’s still-powerful military, which profited from many of these sales and continues to hold tracts of farmland across the country.

“Government authorities at various levels, including township development committees and the military, have grabbed land on false ‘public’ pretexts and sold it off in plots,” deputy minister Tun Win told the The Irrawaddy.

Meanwhile, local farmers have demanded higher compensation for over 1,000 acres of land taken from them for a planned diplomatic zone in Naypyidaw’s Dekkhinathiri Township.

Min Thu, a member of the Naypyidaw City Development Committee—the capital city’s municipal authority—said they could offer higher compensation if what farmers received does not match market rates.

According to Min Thu, the government has already signed land lease agreements with the governments of Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Regarding the military’s substantial holdings in Naypyidaw, Naypyidaw Council member Aye Maung Sein said the military has yet to inform them of their intentions regarding the return of unused land in line with the new government’s policy.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.