KNU and Karen NGOs Discuss Land Rights Challenges

By Saw Yan Naing 26 July 2013

The Karen National Union and ethnic Karen non-governmental organizations held a three-day workshop in the Thai border town of Mae Sot this week to discuss land rights and water management challenges in southeastern Burma’s Karen State, NGO workers said on Friday.

Officials of the KNU’s Agriculture Department and several KNU brigades and district officers met with dozens of representatives of NGOs, such as the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen Person (CIDKP), the Karen Office for Relief and Development (KORD) and the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).

NGO representatives urged the KNU and the Karen community to jointly address water management and land rights issues, and to come up with policies that would protect these resources for the Karen people.

“The workshop just provides us with information on how important land and water policies are. It is also like an advocacy workshop to discuss land and water policies, and people who want to give suggestions can also share their ideas there,” said Saw Steve from CIDKP.

Land ownership has become a particularly pressing issue as many Karen refugees are expected to return home when Burma’s government and ethnic Karen rebel groups reach a peace accord.

In January 2012, President Thein Sein’s reformist government reached a ceasefire with the ethnic Karen rebels after decades of conflict. But as the two sides slowly move towards a peace agreement, land confiscation, deforestation and hydropower dam construction have increased in Karen State.

Saw Steve said reclaiming old village lands would be a difficult process for the displaced Karen, as they are required to show proof of ownership, a history of the land and accounts of old neighbors that support their claims.

More than 150,000 Karen refugees have been living in camps along the Thai-Burma border for decades, while thousands remain internally displaced by the ethnic conflict in Karen State.

Many of them lost their farms and large swathes of land were confiscated by Burmese Army units or by businessmen with close links to the Burmese government.

Few of the displaced Karen have official proof of land ownership as they traditionally farmed without legal land registration. The ethnic conflict in Karen State also prevented the formal government registration of land ownership.

Saw Steve said the KNU has been trying to address the issue of land rights and began issuing its own land documents to displaced Karen two years ago.

KNU’s Agriculture Department is responsible for collecting information about land claims made by displaced Karen villagers. If claims are approved the department will conduct land measurements and issue ownership documents.

According to NGO sources and workshop participants, the KNU said it will raise the issue of land rights during the next round of peace talks with Naypyidaw. The group will seek government recognition of land claims and show its documents containing the claims of Karen refugees.

The KNU will reportedly also develop further legal procedures for registering land claims and set up a complaint mechanism for those whose land has been grabbed by the Burma Army or businessmen.

It remains to be seen however, if Naypyidaw and the KNU can reach an agreement on the thorny issue of land rights, and whether the government would be willing to legally recognize the KNU-registered land claims.

Many refugees meanwhile, are afraid to return home as large areas of farmland are contaminated with landmines, while many also fear that conflict could resume.

KNU officials could not be reached for comment on Friday.